Shirt’s on fire: Atlanta’s machine-washable art

Artist R. Land’s popular T-shirts include “Little Bunny Foo-Foo,” “Loss Cat” and “Pray for ATL.” (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)
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Artist R. Land’s popular T-shirts include “Little Bunny Foo-Foo,” “Loss Cat” and “Pray for ATL.” (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Story by Thomas Bell. Photos by Jenni Girtman

There’s a public art show open through all our sunny Atlanta days, our torsos the roving galleries. As democratic art collections, our affordable acquisitions hang above blue jeans, dress down skirts, pair well with shorts. Instead of oil paint on canvas: cotton or tri-blend on chest.

Digitally disruptive T-shirts can be printed on-demand by online outfits like TeePublic or Threadless, while artisan, small-batch creations are locally sourced from screen printing collectives like Danger Press.

As holiday shoppers on budgets, we give them to friends and family near and far. A locally themed T-shirt reminds them of home and speaks to what we see in them, what we share between us.

And among strangers, we recognize the signals of our tribes. We connect.

The Peachtree Road Race. Bookzilla. O4W. L5P. The Hawks. The Falcons. The Braves. ATL United.

“A couple summers ago I was in a brewery in Astoria, Oregon,” says WABE producer Myke Johns. “My wife pointed out, ‘Hey, I think that guy behind you is wearing a Fox Bros. T-shirt.’ I walked up and said, ‘What’s up?’ and it was obvious why because I was wearing a Catlanta T-shirt.”

Something only an Atlantan would understand. No faux local. No mega brands.

Computer programmer Stewart Haddock treasures his old T-shirt that reads, “If you don’t get help at Charter, please… meet me at The Stein Club.” It’s a mashup of a long-running television ad for Charter Ridge Behavioral Health System and the much-beloved Stein Club bar, which closed in 2000.

We get a laugh. A smile. A reminder of good friends and fun times.

We wear T-shirts.

Their very name a stubborn dedication to an unchanging shape, but what endless iterations we create upon them.

Pray for ATL. Loss Cat.

“I’m a T-shirt nerd. I have thousands of T-shirts,” says Atlanta-based pop artist R. Land, the creator of such iconic images as the ubiquitous “Pray for ATL” hands, cranky “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and the wayward feline “Loss Cat,” which has become a viral sensation.

Although best known for his public murals and his fine art originals and prints, Land’s love of T-shirts extends back to the beginning of his art career. In the 1980s, he would go to Charlie’s Trading Post, a now-defunct sporting goods store on McDonough Boulevard, across from the Federal Penitentiary.

“I’d dig through giant bins of blank shirts, weird cuts from the ’70s and ’80s. I would buy a cart full of them at a time for $100, then I would come up with the weirdest things I could.”

He’d do a short print run, then dump the now uniquely designed and signed shirts at AMVETS donation centers or Value Village thrift stores.

“I would go to a show the next Friday night at Star Bar, or some other club, and I would see people in the bands wearing the shirts. I wasn’t making any money. It was just fun to see.”

Today he does a brisk business in T-shirts, shipping out orders every day from his Inman Park studio and designing them for Atlanta businesses and events, including the Little Five Points Halloween Festival and Parade, the East Atlanta Strut and Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee Shop. He keeps a wall of photos in his studio of customers wearing his shirts.

“I always feel happy when I see somebody at a gas pump or standing at a street corner wearing a Pray for ATL shirt,” he says. “One woman sent me a picture of her son. She’d had his portrait done: a double-exposure. He’s wearing his Loss Cat shirt, and he’s smiling ear to ear.”

The hypnotic skull of the Vortex. Line drawings of dancers at the Clermont Lounge. A man’s glorious afro emblazoned with So So Def.

“Victory is for Losers,” says a T-shirt for Victory Sandwich Bar, riffing on the “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan. The shirt was designed by Alvin Diec, designer and partner in commercial art firm Office of Brothers.

Victory co-owner Ian Jones “likes to do things that are a little self-deprecating,” says Diec, whose T-shirt creations for Victory have included a “Death to False Parkers!” warning from the restaurant’s parking lot.

Jones commissions the shirts primarily as uniforms for his staff and to promote the restaurant’s special events. But the striking designs and spirit of ironic fun speak to customers, so the restaurant also sells them, turning diners into brand ambassadors.

Though T-shirt sales are presumably a minor revenue stream for most restaurants, “almost all of our restaurant clients, we’ll do shirts for,” Diec says. Examples include a Taco Tiger T-shirt for Superica and a spoof of a sport league shirt — complete with fake sponsors — for Spiller Park.

These shirts create more than name recognition. They’re panels in a graphic novel: the story of all who gather to dine and drink. Why they came to this place at this time, the community they made, what stays with them when they’re gone.

Shoot the Hooch. What’ll Ya Have?

Many more designers and artists are out there creating T-shirts, each connecting us to our community.

Rep Your Hood prints shirts with altered images of iconic Atlanta intersections and street scenes.

Rick Weetman’s Wemco offers a Perimeter-bounded map of “The Isle of ITP.”

Danger Press brings together local screen printing artists and designers, helping them bring their unique creations to market.

As Atlanta grows and changes, the art we wear on our bodies reflects that and reminds us who we are and what we are becoming.

Plus, through our workouts, our hot days and cool nights, it gives us something to wear.

Insider tip

Many local designers and artists sell T-shirts online, but you can also find them for sale at such local boutiques as Crafted Westside (craftedwestside.com), HomeGrown Decatur (homegrowndecatur.com) and Junkman’s Daughter (thejunkmansdaughter.com).