T-shirts celebrate inside jokes and ironic civic pride

These Baltimore-themed T-shirts were for sale at a booth at the Fells Point Fun Festival manned by Mike Watts from Stem Graphics. Each of the designs has unique Baltimore significance and was created by Baltimore artists.
These Baltimore-themed T-shirts were for sale at a booth at the Fells Point Fun Festival manned by Mike Watts from Stem Graphics. Each of the designs has unique Baltimore significance and was created by Baltimore artists. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Andy York recently bought a T-shirt that captures how he feels about his city.

The design includes various implements of violence that include brass knuckles, a switchblade, a noose and a brick in the shape of a heart.

"It all comes down to self-deprecating humor," said York, a Pigtown resident who plans to wear the tee to live music events or festivals. "I would be really upset if someone from Pittsburgh was wearing a shirt like that."

Elected officials and tourism industry leaders have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing slogans to emphasize Baltimore's finer points. But several designers in the Baltimore area have capitalized on the demand for ironic T-shirts among hipsters and have created products featuring obscure landmarks and inside jokes.

Though the T-shirts are mostly sold by entrepreneurs and out-of-work artists who don't release financial statements, T-shirt makers and printers say they are doing a brisk business both in the city and nationwide through online sales.

The "I (heart) BMORE" shirt has been around for many years, and it's just one of 12 designs by local artists marketed by More Collective, a project in its second year started by Mike Watts, the owner of Stem Graphics in Abingdon, along with Drew Pump and Chris Muccioli.

"It's basically by Baltimore, for Baltimore," Watts said. Many of the designers either went to school at the Maryland Institute College of Art or grew up in the city and "have an inward perspective of what Baltimore is all about."

Watts said they asked artists to avoid the typical "Baltimore" images, like crabs, that are often emblazoned on souvenirs. "We were looking for just some artistic perspective to what Baltimore means to them," said Watts, 38.

Not all of the shirts focus on the city's gritty reputation. One titled "Mustache Connection" features three iconic examples of Baltimore facial hair: Edgar Allan Poe, Mr. Boh and John Waters. Another highlights a headless version of the controversial Man-Woman statue at Penn Station.

"People from outside Baltimore might not even understand that shirt," Watts said.

He said he usually sells as many as a dozen of the $20 shirts online to customers nationwide each week, and makes additional sales at festivals.

Tom Doxanas of T-shirt maker Gimmickwear, enjoyed a steady business at this weekend's Fells Point Fun Festival selling shirts that insult Baltimore's athletic rivals.

He also designed a series of shirts representing Baltimore neighborhoods, most with line drawings of street scenes from each community. Most are pretty straight-forward, such as a T-shirt depicting the Washington Monument for Mount Vernon.

"It's accentuating what makes Baltimore Baltimore, or what we perceive is unique about Baltimore neighborhoods," he said.

His most popular neighborhood T-shirt is Dundalk. The shirt features a drawing of what some people call the "golden domes" – towers that are part of a sewage treatment plant and are visible from Interstate 695.

Doxanas' business used to be based in Dundalk and "you could see it from the bay doors," he said.

Since 2004, he must have sold 15,000 of the shirts, which come in yellow and brown, Doxanas estimated. He said he has received orders from California and even overseas.

Some agree that the domes are worth celebrating.

"It's really something to be proud of," said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works.

"Without this facility you'd have a pretty messy Chesapeake Bay," he said.

In Hampden, people have been chuckling over the "Real Housewives of Hampden" shirts sold at Kiss n' Make-up, a shop on The Avenue. Debbie Stoll, the owner, said the concept, depicting women pole dancing, shooting a gun, pushing a stroller and smoking while pregnant, was her husband Malcolm's idea.

"We were wondering if it would offend anybody in Hampden," Stoll said. But Hampdenites, she said, "seem to be the ones who find them the most amusing."

She agreed that the humor was self-deprecating. "I tend to say to people, 'it's funny because it's true,'" Stoll said. "As Baltimoreans, we're very good at laughing at ourselves."

Stoll said she's never seen any of the "Real Housewives" TV shows, but "I can only imagine, based on what I see on a daily basis, this would make a much better show," she said.

A similar "Real Housewives of Baltimore" shirt is available online with other tongue-in-cheek designs, said Rob Goldberg of Hampden. The out-of-work graphic designer, 46, said he started selling the shirts at festivals and online about three years ago "kind of out of boredom."

While some of the T-shirt designers say they're making profits, Goldberg said he's barely breaking even. "It's almost like a labor of love," he said.

York picked up his black BMORE shirt Sunday at More Collective's stand at the Fells Point Fun Festival. He was showing two friends from Seattle — one a visitor, the other a recent transplant — around the city. The 24-year-old pharmacy and law student said he had been describing the city's different neighborhoods.

"It's neat that a small town has so much pride," he said.


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