Be the Artist: Graphic Tees Are Everywhere


This summer’s Be the Artist series asks the question, “But is it art?”

The Ever-Present Graphic Tee

Graphic t-shirts are everywhere.

Whether you are at school, a company picnic, concert, or comic con, you cannot escape the graphic t-shirt. Printing patterns on material didn’t start with the t-shirt, but the graphic tee made it the commercial and pop culture fashion forerunner it is today. Everything from embroidery and silk screening to iron-ons have been used. Worn by people of all ages all around the world, the t-shirt is the ultimate canvas for displaying your fandom, personalizing you wardrobe, sharing your political or social beliefs, or even advertising a business.

Since this is such a widespread form of fashion, art, and expression, instead of trying to rope in a boring history, I’ll give a few cool facts about graphics t-shirts that I gathered from a variety of graphic design and fashion sites including and

  • The t-shirt has been around since the 19th century, but the term “t-shirt” was first used in print in the 1920s by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book This Side of Paradise:

“So early in September Amory, provided with ‘six suits summer underwear, six suits winter underwear, one sweater or T shirt, one jersey, one overcoat, winter, etc.,’ set out for New England, the land of schools.”

The term that refers to the shape of the shirt of course, and took awhile to catch on, but it’s here to stay.

  • The first example of commercial use of a graphic t-shirt came a decade later, in the 1930s in the movie The Wizard of Oz. Remember the Emerald City workers wearing “Oz” t-shirts? There were also made in white for promotion purposes.
How many graphic tees do we see out in the wild today? An Air Corps Gunnery School member is even seen sporting one on the cover of “Life Magazine” (insert) in 1942.
  • In the 1950s, graphic tees with pop culture logos begin to really become popular, mostly from a company named Tropix Togs, and, thanks to rock ‘n roll, band t-shirts hit the scene big in the 1960s.
  • Today, more than 2 billion t-shirts are sold annually worldwide, and 91 percent of Americans in one survey claim to have a favorite t-shirt. (I do.) The average number of t-shirts owned by an individual is about 27.
  • The most expensive t-shirt ever made sold for $400,000 and had 16 high-end diamonds sewn into the fabric.

Whether is it is art, advertising, or activism, you will likely see someone today in graphic tee (or you might be wearing one yourself right now). Don’t bother trying to escape, the graphic tee is ready to tell a brief tale about its wearer.

Author P.J. O’Rourke summed it up well in his commentaries:

“The 1960s was an era of big thoughts. And yet, amazingly, each of these thoughts could fit on a T-shirt.”

Collages With Tees

One of the things I tried to do through this series is to take a new approach to something familiar, allowing young and experienced art lovers look at things in a different way.

For this final project for this summer’s Be the Artist, we’ll do some upcycling by using t-shirts as a medium on other surfaces.

When we think of graphic tees, we think of a shirt with something on it, but when that shirt gets old, worn or too small we either toss it or give it away. Instead, try turning the t-shirt into the colorful medium that will go on something else, like another piece of clothing or a plain canvas.

You’ll need a few old or unwanted t-shirts (clean out those drawers), and depending on what you want to put them on, some needle and thread or glue.

The goal is to use t-shirt pieces as a sort of fiber arts abstract mosaic. This takes advantage of the texture and colors of a t-shirt.

Cut your t-shirts in to several squares or irregular shapes. Even if you just use two graphic tees of different colors or patterns you will get a nice mix.

Now find your canvas. Do you want to make wall art or wearable art?

Gather old tees, and cut them up in small pieces. Glue them on to a canvas for a textured abstract wall art piece.

For the wall art, get an inexpensive artist canvas, and begin building your mosaic by gluing each piece of cloth on one at a time, overlapping them a little to create a cool texture. Tacky craft glue works just fine. Simply cover the entire canvas until it is done, and you have a fun folk art looking piece.

For wear able art, find a strong piece of clothing like a denim jacket, jeans, or a tote bag. Look for ways to cover spaces—on the sleeves or leg cuffs for example—and sew them on with a simple stick one at time until you get a pattern you like.

Remember the scrap sewing on my “K-Pop” jeans craft. This is similar, except using the t-shirt scraps. These will not only upcycle the t-shirts but also bring life to an old pair of pants or a jacket.

Cut your tees in cool irregular shapes highlighting the image. Hand sew them onto and old pair of jeans, or other garment for some wearable art.

That is all there is to the process, but make sure you look closely at the colors and the graphics on each piece for the pattern. You’ll find details or cool patterns you might not have yet noticed or appreciated.

I hope, as you head into the fall and winter months, this summer’s Be the Artist series helped you gain an appreciation for the creative process that goes into the things we see often, but may not really think of as an artistic creation.

tshirt decorated pants
Upcycled graphic tees can become a cool art medium for other items. All images: Lisa Tate

T-shirts, tattoos, or tiki mugs may not be the first thing we think of when we think of “art,” and they may still not be considered fine art or high art by some, but that’s okay. As long as they have their admirers, they don’t need to be.

If anything, I hope this series gave you a reason to stop and look a little closer at the world around you, and the art and creativity that fills it.

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