Few things are more American than T-shirts and pissing people off for no reason. Combining the two is a long-held national pastime that makes baseball seem about as exciting as sniffing Ben Franklin’s beer farts. So I decided to have some fun testing the limits of every American’s inalienable right to conceptualize offensive ideas and pay someone to print them on t-shirts.
My aim was to create garments that the majority of the US citizenry would find offensive and, more specifically, submit designs so despicable that most custom-tee printers would refuse to print them. Still, my ultimate goal was to find a willing printer and get the shirts made no matter what. Mark Twain, perhaps the quintessential American author, once wrote: “Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.” Each entrepreneur who refused my business would define yet another instance of American indecency and chip away at the bedrock of liberty as we know it.
I began by setting some guidelines: The topics of racism, sexism, and politics were deemed too easy for this exercise, primarily because online retailers already provide a bountiful selection of knee-jerk schlock marketed to college students and bigots. I also afforded myself the luxury of ratcheting up the viciousness of the shirt designs if the printer proved too eager to accept the initial unseemly idea.
I am happy to report that the First Amendment prevailed and every one of my ideas—even when pushed past the limits of my own morals and common sense—was eventually affixed to a t-shirt for around $20 a pop (except for one pricy exception). Sure, it took enduring a little verbal abuse and a bit of shopping around, but I believe our forefathers would be proud that even today the combined forces of capitalism and free speech triumph over America’s prudish moral quibbles.
A few years ago, when every DJ in the world had “Billy Jean” and “Thriller” locked on repeat, I found myself wondering how many children Michael Jackson had actually molested and what kinds of elaborate costumes he was wearing during his rendezvous before he overdosed and died. I settled on either Al Jolson as an ice-cream man or a sequined paramilitary Easter bunny. But these types of images don’t really lend themselves to striking T-shirt design, so I simplified things.
The first printer I called was in Manhattan and had no qualms with the phrase “Baby Toucher” accompanying an image of the King of Pop but objected when I tried to add the word “Dead.” Undaunted by this initial denial, I was positive someone else would be willing to print the image exactly as I wanted, and instead of compromising or asking for an explanation I called another print shop. The nice woman on the phone thought it was a fantastic idea. The shirt was ready for pickup two days later and cost me $25.
Eric is an acquaintance of mine who screenprints t-shirts for side work. I met him through a friend, and I asked said friend what would happen if I called Eric up, put in an order for a screenprinted shirt without giving him details on the design or why I wanted it, and emailed him a Photoshopped image of him blowing his own brains out along with instructions to print it on a plain white tee. She said he wouldn’t care and might think it was all part of some elaborate joke, but I knew better.
I spoke with Eric and he was excited at the prospect of some extra pocket change but thought it was curious when I told him I only wanted a single shirt. In my subsequent email I asked him to call me to discuss a fee after he received the attached image. At 11 PM that evening, I received a call from Eric. He nervously giggled on the other end and asked, “What’s going on? Why did you send me that picture?” He sounded like he was perturbed but trying to keep calm. “It’s just for this thing I’m doing for VICE,” I dead-panned. “It’s going to be a good article.”
He then raised his voice and said, “Wait, what? This is going to be in VICE magazine? What are you trying to do to me?” Guilt began to creep into my conscience and I aborted my plans to play dumb. I gave him a half-assed summary of the article; he admitted to thinking I was a sick son of a bitch and agreed to print the shirt for $100. I bumped into him in the street the next day and things were painfully awkward, but I received the shirt soon after.
Raising the stakes, I decided some straightforward American commentary was needed on the post-earthquake situation in Haiti. I randomly selected a printer in the city that boasted a three-hour turnaround for plain text on tees and told him I wanted “Haiti? Who Gives a Shit.” printed on a gray shirt without adornment. “No way,” he said and hung up.
For my next attempt, I decided to conduct things a little more inconspicuously and commissioned my shirt through a printer’s website that allows you to preview the final product. After a day of unreturned follow-up calls and emails, I concluded that they weren’t true flag-wavers and moved on to Plan C: printers in Brooklyn, which is perhaps the most verbally offensive territory in the world. Unsurprisingly, the second Brooklyn-based place I contacted agreed to print the Haiti hate speech without objection. I couldn’t resist the opportunity and quickly spit out a few more phrases concerning Haiti that might infuriate a normal human being. He had no problem with my improvised addenda and happily told me my shirt would be ready within a few hours.
Back in 2007 when it came to light that Mother Teresa had suffered a serious crisis of faith in her latter years, I wondered whether she ever just threw up her hands and said, “Fuck this. I’m going to get the soup cook to lay some serious pipe in me after he finishes feeding the orphans.” That scenario has played out many times in my mind ever since, and I couldn’t help but wish to manifest it onto a baby onesie so that the children would be able to speculate as I have.
I warned the first print shop I called (in Queens) that the image I wanted to print was racy and that they might be offended. The associate on the phone insisted that his shop had printed many humorous and ribald images for bachelor parties and as gag birthday gifts. A few minutes later I sent the image and he responded with an email that was blank except for a signature line and a subject that read “sorry cant help you” [sic]. When I inquired as to why he was unwilling to print the shirt, explaining it was a sociological-cum-art project that celebrated our American freedoms, he responded, “Yes, there is a policy of no porn. Sorry.” Distraught and dispirited, I once again turned to a Brooklyn-based printing facility. Within ten minutes I had explained what I wanted, emailed the image, and received a quote without hesitation. I expected the clerk to give me a hard time upon my arrival, but he had it bagged up and ready to go and told me he thought it was a “good idea.”
Concert tees and 9/11 are perhaps the epitome of Americana. So, for my final design, I combined their forces. The first place I called was a print shop on the outskirts of the Financial District (which, for all of you heathens out there, is the neighborhood where the World Trade Center once stood). A nice lady answered the phone and I explained that the t-shirt I wanted to print had the potential to get a person killed, or at the very least severely maimed, if it was worn while walking around the sordid streets of NYC. She replied, “We’ll print anything. We don’t care.”
Rising to the challenge, I had my designer add a final touch: an image of a jumper careening down the side of one of the twin towers. Then I sent it off and waited for an infuriated phone call. Twenty minutes passed and my phone rang. It was another employee (or perhaps the owner?) of the print shop, this time a male. He told me he did not appreciate my sense of humor. I insisted that it wasn’t necessarily supposed to be funny and questioned his appreciation of the Constitution of the United States of America. In a fit of rage he stuttered before spitting out “You motherfucker!” and hanging up the phone.
The next place I submitted my design to never returned my multiple follow-up emails and phone calls so, in the interest of giving my business to people who want and probably need it in this dire economy, I phoned the shop that had no problems printing the Mother Teresa tee and told them I had another job for them. Again, no questions were asked and the shirt was ready for pickup the next day. When I arrived there I noticed something that didn’t catch my eye the first time around: NEVER FORGET and FDNY shirts lined the walls. I was certain I had just stepped into a trap and firemen would soon be bashing my skull in with axes, but the clerk calmly ran my debit card and provided me with the shirt and a receipt before wishing me well. That, my fellow patriots, is truly the American way.
Shirt designs by Michael De Leon and Angie Sullivan