Rob Walker

The Mighty Shirt Kings

A while back I wrote here about Dapper Dan, an under-appreciated fashion innovator whose appropriation of luxury symbolism contributed mightily to formative hip-hop styles. (Some time after that essay appeared, The New Yorker did this useful profile.) Another notable entity from the same era is the subject of a recently published book: The Shirt Kings: Pioneers of Hip-Hop Fashion. Back in the 1980s, this group of artists calling themselves The Mighty Shirt Kings set up shop at the Jamaica Coliseum, in Queens, offering “custom air-brushed and original artwork,” which could be had on canvas, but also pants, jackets, and of course T-shirts. The style resonates with old-school graffiti, and is most remarkable (to me) for the unpredictable borrowing and remixing of pop iconography: a Mickey Mouse-like figure with a heavy gold chain, leaning on a bottle of Moët; the Pink Panther blurting Flavor Flav’s catch phrase; a California Raisin (from the ad campaign) in a Gucci hat. This is all quite different from Dapper Dan’s work, and decades out of context may look bizarre to the uninitiated. Yet the energy and freedom of the designs (and customers) documented in this book of casual photos from back in the day are unmistakable, and exhilarating. Given how much critical and academic scrutiny has been given to other subculture styles — more thoughts on punk, anyone? — it seems a good time to recognize the wild originality of early hip-hop aesthetics. The Shirt Kings helps. —Rob Walker

Posted in: Books, Culture, Popular Culture

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Rob Walker Rob Walker writes about technology, design, business, the arts, and other subjects. His column The Workologist appears in The New York Times Sunday Business section. Previously he wrote the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.    


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