It’s official… graphic t-shirts have made a comeback. The rock, surf, and skate shirts popular in the ‘80s have been resurrected and rebranded for the modern era. Graphic tees are a staple of streetwear’s heyday. Any lad growing up in Southern California in the ‘80s, in that strange limbo decade between the end of punk rock and the rise of hip-hop, had a closet stuffed with skate shirts by Powell Peralta and surf tees like Billabong and Quicksilver.
Today, graphic printed t-shirts are a global trend. And whether you’re rocking a t-shirt with an eye-catching print or a witty, snarktastic saying, the printing methods have improved. That cool graphic design emblazoned on your shirt isn’t gonna’ fade after one wash. We’ve come a long way since the ’80s, baby!
The History of the Graphic T-Shirt
While influential box store fashion houses like Levi’s and Gucci have embraced graphic t-shirts, streetwear originated in small, DIY clothing operations. Southern California’s skate and surf brands began as low budget expressions of youth culture. Graphic printed tees are the equivalent of graffiti. It makes sense that a popular street artist like Shephard Fairey (“Obey Giant,” The Barack Obama “Hope” poster) cut his teeth in California’s streetwear industry.
According to “The Oral History of the Graphic T-Shirt,” hip-hop ushered in the golden age of the graphic t-shirt. New York and Japan overtook California as hotspots for graphic tees, and independent t-shirt companies like Staple, Elements of Style, and 10.Deep were all the rage. Hole in the wall boutiques thrived, and every indie hip-hop group seemed to have their own graphic t-shirt designer. The heyday of graphic t-shirts came to an end with the Internet, as new brands sprouted up faster than mould.
The Rebirth of Cool
The graphic t-shirt is the cornerstone of streetwear. The style may go into hiding for a few years, but when it comes back it’s cooler and hipper than ever – re-tweaked for a new youth culture. Comfort and versatility is part of the appeal of graphic t-shirts; they can be worn with shorts, skinny jeans, stone washed chinos, bomber jackets, and anything else you have kicking around the closet. More importantly, however, graphic tees are unique and expressive. They’re the pop art equivalent of analog in a digital world, representing individualism and DIY youth culture.