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The Shirts on Our Back 

New Orleanians wear their pride, and their concerns about the city's future, on their sleeves.

At Metro Three, New Orleans- and Katrina-related T-shirts espousing one credo or another fill the walls. "It's just nice to let people know where you're from," says co-owner Starbuck Laney. As many New Orleanians made their way back into the city in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, they went through their to-do list. They checked their residences for damage. They dumped their fridges on the sidewalk. They continued their journey through the Kafka-esque bureaucracies of FEMA, the Red Cross, the Department of Labor and others.

And they bought T-shirts.

"When we were out of town (during the mandatory evacuation), we wore our shirts all the time," says Starbuck Laney, who co-owns the hipster Magazine Street shop Metro Three with his wife, Lori. "It's just nice to let people know where you're from."

Lori, a graphic designer, and Starbuck opened Metro Three in 2003 to sell their New Orleans-themed shirts, which bore slogans like "My Ride (with a streetcar image)," "New Orleans Is For Lovers" and a series of shirts with neighborhood names. Hometown pride kept business rolling well enough for two years, but after the storm the unintentional exodus awakened a deeper need to represent.

"We do a lot of online business anyway, but after the storm we really got a lot of emails -- asking if we had gotten any new stuff or just asking for the old designs," says Laney. "Since we screenprint each shirt by hand, we were able to make shirts from our evacuation location in Alabama, and we had seven or eight weeks there to just come up with stuff." The most popular post-Katrina design has been "Make Levees Not War"; other slogans inspired by the storm include "Nagin for President," "Katrina and Rita -- Girls Gone Wild," and "Still Proud To Call It Home."

Since the city reopened, T-shirts referencing New Orleans' ordeal have been a popular sight in the streets. Several nonprofit agencies are using shirts emblazoned with optimistic phrases to raise money for relief and rebuilding efforts. Desire NOLA has been generating cash for small business grants with "I (fleur-de-lis) New Orleans" shirts; the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund's "renew orleans" shirts have been out since mid-September, and several other groups have been selling plastic bracelets bearing pro-NOLA messages, inspired by the popular "Live Strong" model.

Bourbon Street's T-shirts shops wasted no time in getting a dizzying selection of shirts on their racks, including the delightfully disgusting one that references Katrina and, for lack of a better term, memorable oral sex. Interestingly, though, out of the dozens of shirt designs for sale, a majority of available designs are privately produced products -- many done by individuals, in small print runs, and sold from behind local bar counters. On weekday evenings at Molly's at the Market on lower Decatur Street, you can buy black T-shirts emblazoned with the phrases "The City That Government Forgot" and "Bureaucracy Kills" designed by Maggie McElheney. At Cafepress.com, a site that lets you design and sell your own shirt, you can buy either "Got Mold?" or "New Orleans: Proud To Swim Home" along with myriad bumper stickers.

Billy Thinnes, a local writer, found that the combination of the impetus to show Crescent City pride in exile, plus time on his hands during the evacuation, generated an opportunity for something he'd always hoped to find time for: working on a project with his friend, artist Lesley Nash. After seeing the phrase "504ever" bouncing around Internet message boards, Thinnes took to the craft store. "I got a gold shirt, and some black iron-on letters, and wore the shirt at Austin City Limits just to say, 'I'm from New Orleans, this is my scene,'" he says.

"When I got back, Leslie drew a design, and we did a run of 200 shirts in time for Halloween."

The shirts sold out on the streets of New Orleans during Halloween weekend, and the two are doing another run to sell during Mardi Gras. "There are some people who just have a sincere love for New Orleans, and want to keep it in the public consciousness," Thinnes says. "People in the New Orleans scene feel deeply about the city and want to represent."

Designer Jac Curris also found a new and hungry audience for a shirt design he'd been selling outside the Fair Grinds coffeehouse in Faubourg St. John for the past two years: a Mohawked skull in profile, bearing a fleur-de-lis tattoo and the slogan "Defend New Orleans" in Old English lettering, above an antique flintlock pistol. The old-school punk rock menace of the image, even before the storms, implied an arty militance that served to kind of celebrate New Orleans' uniqueness and recognize how tenuous it was. Now, the message has a fresh urgency.

Others have been inspired to sport shirts without any plans to merchandise them. Independently of each other, three locals -- actress Veronica Russell, photographer Elizabeth Underwood and Circle Bar manager and musician Lefty Parker -- took a Sharpie to a plain white T-shirt and began wearing their personal Katrina epigraph: the "X" symbol left on their destroyed homes by emergency workers searching for bodies. "I don't know how I came up with it," says Parker. "It's an image I saw all over the city, and as an artist, it appealed to me. It's an image of destruction. [The shirt] didn't last, but I'm going to make another."

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