To a Tee

How Andy Brown took his tee shirts from the halls of NorthCanyon High to the racks at Urban Outfitters

So as a freshman at North Canyon High School, he made himself mobile -- and within the course of a typical weekend Brown could be spotted playing sand volleyball Friday afternoon, out at a football game that night, and at a skateboarding contest after that. A normal Saturday would include a morning of snowboarding in Flagstaff, an early punk rock show in Tempe, and, later that night, a b-boy competition in downtown Phoenix. Designs and homework were reserved for Sunday evenings, following an afternoon trip to an art gallery. As he puts it, Brown was always "making movements, not absorbing energy."


Even before Andy Brown could drive, he decided to become a tee shirt designer. He says he was initially inspired by the clothing styles worn by Phoenix's own Turtle skate crew, one of the Valley's pioneering skateboarding crews. With encouragement from his best friend, Brad Pringle, who had an idea for a tee shirt label called Macadamia, Brown took a white Hanes undershirt and drew a big green "M" on the front with a Sharpie marker. He employed the same bubble letter style he'd hawked to his grammar school friends for milk money. The color of the "M" faded dramatically (from dark green at the edges to bright yellow in the center) and Brown wore the design to school the next day. His friends loved it.

Brown offers up a geometric-patterned tee.
Brown offers up a geometric-patterned tee.
A model looks cheeky in a skimpy Soldierleisure ensemble.
A model looks cheeky in a skimpy Soldierleisure ensemble.

Details

Photograpy by Jackie Mercandetti

At the behest of Pringle, Brown drew another shirt with a picture of a burnt-out matchstick on the front. Brown wore this one to school as well, garnering even more attention. One request turned into two, and before they knew it, Andy and Brad's designs were showing up on kids' shirts throughout north Phoenix. It didn't take the teenagers long to hire JMS Enterprises to silk-screen the designs on tee shirts, and by the ripe old age of 15, Andy Brown and Brad Pringle had their first tee shirt company, selling each shirt for $15 apiece.

"Brad and I were never like, Let's make millions.' We just knew we had great designs and we had great ideas; why not put them out there? And if I'm making money doing what I love to do, awesome, and if not I've got plenty of other skills," Brown says.

Soon after the initial tee shirt craze, Brad and Andy both got girlfriends and Macadamia fizzled. Today, Brad Pringle is the fleet manager for Right Toyota in north Scottsdale.

But Andy Brown was only getting started in the tee business.


It's no surprise that Andy Brown's design roots come from the streets, since he's really a graffiti artist at heart.

During the early '80s, New York City's hardscape experienced the revival of graffiti art with the advent of a vagrant man known only by his tag name, SAMO (short for Same Old Shit). Regarded for the harsh beauty and unparalleled frequency of SAMO's rough slang poetry and vagrant code-symbols, Manhattan soon became his playground, his canvas.

The world would soon after come to know SAMO as the urban art legend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat rose to international superstardom after hawking his self-proclaimed "ignorant art" to the likes of Andy Warhol on the streets and in the restaurants of New York City. His paintings are now printed on tee shirts that are sold at Urban Outfitters, in the same spaces Andy Brown's tee shirts have occupied.

At the age of 15, Brown, much like Basquiat before him, became a notable presence in his own local underground hip-hop and graffiti worlds, seeking refuge in the dark landscapes of downtown Phoenix.

While most of his high school contemporaries were going to boondocker parties in the desert, Brown was busy perfecting his skills in the city. But Andy Brown, still a great distance from the whirlwind of superstardom, has managed to avoid the hard living that truncated Basquiat's brilliant career. Brown is inspired instead by the hip-hop music he grew up on, the speed of business, and a flair for providing relaxed atmospheres through his urban fashion sense and dry humor.

For fear of offending anyone, Brown kept his graffiti from walls, houses and buildings, relegating it to the concrete supporting the north Phoenix canal banks and irrigation ditches, where only other graffiti artists might see it. As a result, Brown's success in Phoenix hails not from his notoriety as a tagger (a label he brusquely rejects) but from his affable personality, which has afforded him a rather large and eclectic circle of friends, including Joseph Oursland, a painter whose work has appeared at the Icehouse and monOrchid Studios; Michael Pringle, a skateboarder and chef; Ryan Ingraham, a dancer with the Furious Styles crew; Justin Porter, a former graffiti artist who now works as a painter and furniture designer; and his best friend, Brad Pringle.

"We had friends who were graffiti artists, friends who were preppies, jocks, skaters, and some were trying not to be sellouts, staying in the underground punk scene, which was way underground at the time," Pringle adds. "It's just funny how some people stayed ahead of it and some people ended up following it. What's interesting about Andy is that he could stay ahead of it on many different levels, but at the same time get people to follow him."

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