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Band T-shirts I have loved and envied

Notes from a closet full of local designs.

Image: Six T-shirts are arrayed on a blue background, featuring designs for Trapo, Willy Street Chamber Players, Proud Parents, Tubal Cain, Supa Friends, and The United Sons Of Toil.

If I could have a cartoon-character closet with 80 of the same outfit, I’d be fine. I’m at peace with being the dowdy little cube-shaped thing that I am. Still, I take some pleasure in band T-shirts. I can wear a good one to shreds, and Madison-based artists have made plenty of memorable designs. I don’t really need a stranger on the street to know I like a band, but it’s an easy solution to the problem of dressing oneself, and a way to spend a few extra bucks to support music I love. 

The most recent one in my closet is from Tubal Cain. Josh Stuewer‘s ornate, arcane ritual scene is printed in red against a solid yellow shirt. The ketchup-and-mustard color scheme is loud, and hints at the sense of humor around the edges of the band’s unshakeable black-metal swagger.

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Speaking of condiments, a few years back Proud Parents ingeniously issued a T-shirt that was designed by Matt Chicorel and featured a pile of corn dogs, accompanied by a bright splash of either ketchup or mustard. If you are a clumsy person like me, forever dribbling bits of food and drink onto your clothes, then a shirt like this is your friend.

The shirts I’ve accrued from Madison-connected artists over the years range from playful to straightforward to self-referential to high-concept. A black-and-white Willy Street Chamber Players shirt tastefully incorporates an old map of the Isthmus. A more recent one, for hip-hop outfit Supa Friends, reads “SUPA!” in nice plump bubble letters. Rapper and singer Trapo accompanied his 2017 song “Blue Shirt” with a blue shirt that says “BLUE SHIRT” on it; the artist’s actual name only appears in very small text on the bottom of the front. Mighty post-hardcore band Poney issued a shirt years ago that appeared to show an amp with the base of the Christmas Story leg lamp. The United Sons Of Toil, a much-missed noise-rock outfit whose songs raged at atrocities and injustices, created a shirt that simply showed a timeline of genocides throughout history. 

Most band shirts are limited-run affairs. Sometimes you miss out. My biggest regret in this department is never getting a shirt that Madison post-punk/metal band Zebras was selling more than a decade ago. Across the midriff of the shirt is a cat laying with its belly exposed and front paws crossed. The wearer could theoretically pat their belly and in so doing pat the cat’s belly, without risk of springing the dreaded claw trap. Zebras synth player/vocalist Lacey Smith designed it as a parody of Santana’s first album cover. Dash Hounds also had a very cute one that I did not snap up in time, featuring a gracefully rendered dachshund.

It’s too bad, but it’s also nice that these shirts mark a point in time, finite, not endlessly printed up on demand. At some point, the artist decided to go with a particular design, and maybe it allowed them to express something beyond what’s in the music. Or it was just a fun little extra that also hopefully brought in a little extra cash.

Band tees aren’t the only ones that capture a sense of fond local connection, of course. B-Side recently re-stocked a classic shirt featuring a design by cartoonist P.S. Mueller: A grinning stegosaurus in headphones and sunglasses. The queer- and Indigenous-owned tattoo shop giige also recently rolled out a line of shirts featuring work from its resident artists. The “harbinger” design by Mar Gosselar is particularly stunning. These are things that even the utilitarian dressers among us can look forward to wearing.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

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