In a Starched City, Selling T-Shirt Subversion
Thursday, November 29, 2007
In the world of the ambitious young Washington professional, weird doesn't market well.
But for a group of friends who come up with satirical one-liners to create T-shirts for their peers, that doesn't matter. In fact, weird is their vision of Washington chic.
The T-Shirt Insurgency markets its wares on the Internet and at Capitol Hill Books on C Street SE. Shirts displayed in the store window sport such slogans as "Guantanamo Bay: Come for the beaches, stay for the waterboarding," "Best War Ever" and "Gay on Tuesdays."
The slogans are edgy, opaque, mocking and, sometimes, downright odd, reflecting the personalities of their creators. Many tilt to the left.
"If there's a central theme, [it's that] we think the status quo is absurd," said Kyle Burk, 31, one insurgent. "The whole thing is kind of desperate. We don't think we can affect anything, so we just make fun of it. But at least with every shirt we sell, we can have our vengeance."
This is not a business story, though the T-Shirt Insurgency seeks a small niche in a growing market. Self-designed T-shirts of all sorts are available through Web sites such as California-based CafePress.com. Rather, this is a story about three guys who live on Capitol Hill but swim outside the mainstream in a city that rewards the mainstream. Two work for nonprofit organizations, and one runs a moving company.
Burk, Aaron Beckwith and Matt Wixon are three disgruntled friends who, by their own admission, drink too much, think too much and spend too much time opining on the vortex of their lives.
"None of us really wants to have an office job," said Beckwith, 27, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is vice president of Population Environment Balance, which promotes restrictions on immigration.
Burk grew up in Missouri and now works on Hispanic outreach for the National Safety Council. Wixon, 30, who grew up in Arlington and attended St. Anselm's Abbey Catholic School in Northeast, runs a moving company.
On its Web site, the insurgency's "(un)manifesto" declares: "Our job is one of illuminating juxtapositions that are at once both obvious and untenable. The insurgency strives to be the cockbur [sic] inside your sock that constantly reminds you that your insidious reality resides firmly within the smooth play of seduction and consumption."
The three exchange ideas by e-mail, brainstorm over beer and wax the wax of the waxer.
Wixon recently decided to rail against high-fructose corn syrup through a T-shirt. Another apparently apolitical shirt from the insurgency features an angry stack of pancakes. The insurgents met four years ago in the District raising money for environmental causes. The guys (including a fourth, Justin Maltry, who recently moved to Seattle) pooled about $4,000 to start their business.