Art-A-Whirl includes a common canvas: T-shirts

  • Updated: May 17, 2014 - 4:45 PM

“Hey, if you pause [‘Shaun of the Dead’] and look in the background, there’s our poster!” Mike Davis

It’s Art-A-Whirl weekend, and if you’re thinking it’s just painting, sculpture, glassblowing, or found objects glued together and given an enigmatic name like Disappointment #1 — you might want to broaden your definitions. What’s the most common canvas? The most mobile platform for art? The T-shirt.

Mike Davis is head of a screen printing operation, Burlesque of Minnesota, and they make posters, album artwork, window displays, and T-shirts for organizations like Target, Nike, the band Doomtree and others. So, how did you get into this?

“I studied graphic design in school in St. Louis,” Mike says. “After graduation I became friends with guys from Minneapolis who did a graffiti magazine, and they’d come to town for a graffiti festival. It evolved from a bunch of guys doing a mag to guys doing graphic design for hire.”

Graffiti, eh? One of them vandals who write squiggles on garages, you say?

Mike laughs. “The festival was totally legal, sanctioned by the city. I think even the mayor came.”

Well, good to see you’ve gone straight and use your powers for Good. Mike’s love of the ’70s and ’80s graphics resulted in a popular T-shirt called The Censored Rap shirt, which sports a barely-recognizable logo for a certain shoe company.

“In the ’80s and ’90s the logos would be blurred out in a rap video, so this logo is pre-blurred. I’ll be in another city and I’ll see that one walking down the street. It’s been fun just seeing where our work ends up. Some of our posters show up in the background of movies, even. One was in ‘Shaun of the Dead,’ and we still get people contacting us to this day. Hey, if you pause the movie and look in the background, there’s our poster!”

Does anyone really use posters these days to herald an event? “The poster’s purpose has evolved. Ten years ago you had to print fliers and tack them up on phone poles, but now it’s Twitter and Facebook. The poster is now the souvenir.”

Some of Burlesque’s poster work for the band Arcade Fire uses “vintage” themes without slavishly copying the look of previous eras — a remix, not a rehash. Which brings to mind the distressed pre-aged faux vintage T-shirts that just slap an old logo on a Beefy-T. A professional opinion on those?

“It’s kind of corny. You want to say hey, I have that shirt, and it’s legitimately torn up.”

You can see more of their work — from incredibly ornate posters to naughty Smurfettes — at burlesquedesign.com, and during Art-A-Whirl. And, of course, on someone walking down the street.

James Lileks

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