POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2012:
City Pride On Display
A plethora of Tulsa-touting t-shirts
You've seen them all. "I Heart Tulsa." "Don't Hate the 918." The one with the picture of the Driller on it. Inexplicably, there's been a huge surge of late in the production and sale of Tulsa-themed t-shirts.
And it's not like people are printing these shirts up and then sitting around losing money on the venture, either.
"I wish I knew what set the whole thing off," said Must Stash owner Ashley James. "We ship shirts all over the place. I shipped to Italy last week, and I shipped two shirts to Germany the other day. People just really embrace Tulsa. I'm not sure why, but we sell out of them every day."
James certainly doesn't mean that she doesn't understand why Tulsans seem to love their city. She, herself, loves the place dearly.
"I'm from here, and I love it, and when I tell people how much I love it, they're like, 'Well, then you probably haven't been anywhere,'" she said. "But I've been everywhere, and I love this place."
So do a bunch of other people.
People like Steve Cluck, half of the design team Louis and Cluck, which he founded with his partner in t-shirt crime, Zure Louis.
"We're just a couple of artists and we met at TU," he said. "We were going to arts school, and we were sort of like-minded about design. We both loved minimalism, and mid-century modern, and '60s and '50s and '60s imagery, and pop art. We had similar design sensibilities."
While taking a printmaking class together, the pair decided to give the shirt-making business a try, though they weren't exactly planning to open a business.
"We were just like, 'Hey let's make some shirts,'" Cluck said. "We had wanted to get a Tulsa shirt for a friend who was moving to India, but we started to see that there wasn't much Tulsa stuff to shop for, so we thought, 'We'll just make it ourselves.'"
Thus was born the I Heart Tulsa tshirt, arguably the most popular shirt in a very locally-popular genre.
"We made an I Heart Tulsa shirt and gave it to our friend, and then people were like, 'I want one,'" he said.
It was as simple as that. And so was the follow-up smash hit, the ubiquitous "Don't Hate the 918," which came about due pretty much exclusively to some random teenaged malcontent.
"So in 2005, I was wearing my I Heart Tulsa shirt, and I was at the Gypsy Coffeehouse," Cluck said. "And this kid came up to me and was like, 'Why do you love Tulsa? This place sucks,' and I just sort of said, 'Hey, don't hate the 918.' And then I was like, 'That's the next shirt.'"
He and Louis printed those up and took them to Ida Red on Brookside, and sales exploded.
So there's the story of one Tulsa-themed t-shirt company.
But there are tons of them out there. In fact, slaving away just like Cluck is Val Esparza, whose T-Town Teez gave us the t-shirt showing most of the Driller's upper body. Go Google "T-Town Teez" right now and look it up. I'll wait.
Yes, that one. Okay.
Much like Louis and Cluck, T-Town Teez also just kind of accidentally started existing.
"It was the Driller print," Esparza said. "My friend took the photograph, and when I saw it, I thought the angle was really interesting. I thought it would look cool on a t-shirt. It was just a photograph. Art just inspires art, I guess."
And speaking of inspiration, pretty much all these t-shirt designers are waiting around for an idea to hit them, much the same way Thomas Edison would sit around and wait for an idea to hit Nikola Tesla so he could then steal it.
"Pretty much the muse has to hit me. With the Driller, it was pretty simple," he said. "And the Made in Oklahoma one sort of came when I saw the Broken Arrow sign. Honestly, it's just whenever I see something that's like a new perspective on something that I've seen a hundred times."
The Made in Oklahoma shirt is another you've seen: it's just the letters "O" and "K," with the "O" made out of a dreamcatcher and the "K" out of two arrows.
Yes, that one.
But it's a good thing these ideas come and apparently keep coming, because they keep selling. People in Tulsa love this place, and they're voting with their wallets.
"We get new designs in every month," said Ida Red manager Angeline Wright. "It's just based on what's going on and what's new and what the demand is, but we get new shirts in all the time."
Like the Must Stash, Ida Red sells several different labels' lines of pro-Tulsa clothing in addition to memorabilia related to Tulsa in general and the Cain's Ballroom in particular.
"We sell Darby and Dash, we sell OKTees, and we even have shirts that are dyed in Oklahoma red dirt," Wright said. "We have a variety of shirts, and some we even make ourselves. Like the Take Me Back to Tulsa shirt is one of ours."
Ida Red opened about four years ago, primarily as an outlet to sell Cain's merchandise, and there was also a ticket sales outlet.
"We had a few Tulsa things, and it just kept expending," she said. "It's a gift store now. We have t-shirts and Oklahoma- and Tulsa-related memorabilia. We sell Toms and other items from companies that give back in some way or another. We just have lots of different stuff."
But a huge chunk of sales are coming from the pro-Tulsa stuff.
The same can be said for the Must Stash, which sells higher-end clothing and doesn't focus so much on the gifts and such that one might find at Ida Red. Nevertheless, Tulsa shirts sell.
"We didn't have any Tulsa shirts, and people started bringing shirts in and asked us to sell them for them," said Stash owner James. "We thought it would be good to help people out, and sort of help them have a life or whatever. And now we've built a team and we help each other out. They showed us their designs, and we liked what they were doing, so it really just made sense."
In an effort to help out some struggling artists who, along the way, thought it would be a good idea to print up some shirts that said cool things about Tulsa, James ended up helping herself and her store out just as much, if not more.
But why? Cluck has an idea.
"I can't speak for anybody else, but I know that even when we started making these shirts way back, Oklahomans wear t-shirts," he said. "That's something you just know. Go to the fair, go to the mall, the grocery store -- everywhere you go, that's what you see people wear. We're a t-shirt loving community."
But he also said that the boon of Tulsa tees isn't solely due to the fact that we just like to wear a lot of t-shirts, and the Tulsa shirts fill that niche. It's deeper than that.
"I think that message of saying something positive about Oklahoma really resonated with the audience. I think I wasn't the only one who felt that way when I was making the shirt," Cluck said. "I've even thought a lot about, you know, Texans really like to promote themselves, They're like, 'We're the best,' and they have that whole Texas pride thing. I think Oklahomans have that in their hearts, but they didn't really have a voice. I think these t-shirts sort of voice that. We're proud of where we're from."
Wright echoed Cluck's sentiments, which is a good thing, since Ida Red is the only place Cluck's shirts are sold.
"People love Oklahoma, and I think the people here are unique. There's a unique spirit here in Tulsa," she said. "Depending on who you are, there are a lot of things to celebrate: the music, the sports, and just the community of Tulsa."
And she continued, addressing this t-shirt trend (which has lasted a really long time for being a trend, by the way) directly.
"People love to celebrate that in different ways," she said. "And if that's wearing a t-shirt, that's pretty awesome. I think it's pretty special that I've heard this from people from different states. They're like, 'I keep seeing these cool Tulsa shirts.' I think that's pretty special that, as a community, and all different ages of people, they want to celebrate Tulsa. So it's an awesome experience for us to be able to supply things to help people celebrate Tulsa and Oklahoma."
Cluck is right there with her.
"There's great stuff here. I grew up here, and I went to TU, and I never really left here," he said. "I love it, so I'm happy to portray this positive message."
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