Photo by Victoria Eulaerts
Based in Monroe, Mojo remains resolutely tactile. The company hand-screen-prints designs drawn by brother Doug Kennedy, who works in pen and ink in a series of sketchbooks.
A snapshot of Louisiana's culture that’s not just for tourists anymore
Can an everyday garment double as a creative canvas? Can something as simple as a T-shirt leverage Louisiana’s popular culture as a form of personal expression? In Baton Rouge, Monroe and New Orleans, creative companies are combining local artistry and contemporary graphic design with creative marketing tactics to tap into the pride Louisianans feel for their unique culture. And they’re finding an audience. The medium: A wearable, affordable billboard that is highly visible, personal and accessible to folks all across the spectrum of Louisiana life—the T-shirt.
Anyone who has taken a vacation knows that tourism and T-shirts go hand-in-hand. Since the early ‘fifties, when companies first started printing logos and other graphics on them, T-shirts have been serving as a cheap, accessible and portable means of promoting the places we’ve been and the things we believe. And as the thickets of T-shirts hanging outside souvenir shops up and down Decatur Street illustrate, New Orleans—long a destination for travelers—has taken maximum advantage of visitors’ willingness to flaunt a fleur-de-lis or a ‘Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler’ T-shirt when they get back home. But what about more subtle expressions of Louisiana’s unique culture, calibrated for the local market? For that you might go in search of a company like Dirty Coast—the brainchild of two Louisiana-proud locals whose T-shirt statements tap into deeper veins of local culture, hometown pride and post-Katrina recovery, with a healthy dose of self-deprecation to boot.
DIRTY COAST: New Orleans
Walk into Dirty Coast’s store on Magazine Street and you’ll be greeted by tiles bearing the company’s designs arrayed around the walls. Taken together they present a highly stylized celebration of New Orleans culture—both its obvious and the decidedly more obscure elements. Here are designs that fly the flag for the city’s neighborhoods, cuisine, music, weather, sports, current events, and many more. And while some of the symbols Dirty Coast designers employ will be familiar to out-of-state visitors, many more will not, and one gets the sense that appealing to bead-wearing tourists is not the most important plank in the company’s platform. Owners Patrick Brower and Blake Haney started Dirty Coast after Katrina, in response to Haney’s observation that most of the T-shirts sold in the city really didn’t have much to say about New Orleans’ hometown pride. Haney, a graphic designer who evacuated to Lafayette, printed a run of bumper stickers bearing the by-now familiar maxim to “Be a New Orleanian, Wherever You Are.” The popularity of that simple message convinced Haney and Brower that there was an audience for clever designs expressing solidarity for a beleaguered city. So with New Orleans’ deep well of local idiosyncrasies to draw from they focused their designs on unique local notions, quirks, concepts, cultural icons and current events. And they always keep an ear to the ground for topical subjects sure to capture the attention of a local audience, even at the expense of mystifying tourists. For example, it didn’t take Dirty Coast long to come out with a “The Some-Times Picayune” shirt after the paper announced that it would cease daily publication. The “New Orleans is for Pie Lovers” design won’t mean much to those unaware that the iconic Hubig’s Pie factory burned down early last summer. A classic design, “River. Lake. Uptown. Downtown” depicts not just the waterways and wards that serve as the city’s landmarks but also the idiosyncratic local habit of invoking them to explain the direction to things. The popular “New Orleans. So far behind, we’re ahead,” riffs on the classic Evolution of Man series, but ends with man having reverted to apedom … and wearing Mardi Gras beads. Sure you could read it as a self-deprecating comment on New Orleans’ laid-back pace. But as Haney explains in a post on the company’s Facebook page, there’s another angle: “[So Far Behind] has so much meaning that only a New Orleanian can truly understand. And it continues to prove itself as a truism. While the rest of the country ‘progressed’ and moved to the burbs, tore apart its historic city centers, pushed for big business, we stayed the same. And now everyone wishes for what we have... the walkability, the authenticity, the creative class.”
By not shying away from subtlety and topical subject matter, Dirty Coast’s tongue-in-cheek T-shirt designs have captured a strong following both within the city limits and further afield. In recent years the company has branched out, presenting designs that celebrate Louisiana culture beyond the city limits. There’s a ‘Keep Our Beds Fertile’ shirt for fans of the Louisiana oyster fishery (and playful innuendo); and a ‘Crawfish Pi’ shirt (a giant Pi symbol assembled out of mudbugs) that’s as relevant in French Settlement as in the French Quarter.
As Brower explained, “We have been working with local printers and creatives to create a series of designs that folks can wear proudly, while poking fun at ourselves, proclaiming our local identity, and showing some good-natured protest. We pride ourselves on that.”
COLLEGE DISTRICT: Baton Rouge
If Dirty Coast taps into public sentiment to inspire its designs, Baton Rouge’s College District is a full-blown mining operation. “Crowd-sourced collegiate apparel” is how founder Jared Loftus describes their process, which invites members of college communities (LSU and others) to submit T-shirt designs, then asks an online audience to vote for its favorites. “Someone submits a design,” Loftus explained. “We vet and curate it and post it on the Web site. People give it a grade—A through F—and tell us whether they’d buy it or not. Then, if your design gets printed, you get paid.”
This meritocratic approach came to Loftus when he was running a brick-and-mortar store selling LSU-licensed apparel near campus, which he opened in 2004. “People would come in saying ‘I’ve got an awesome idea for a shirt …’ ” Obviously there are benefits all-round: College District gets to tap into a deep pool of college-spirit-fueled design talent, and anyone with a creative design idea has a chance to present it to a huge (and hugely motivated) audience. The approach also allows College District to solicit and test different designs quickly, meaning lots of different shirts—and custom designs for individual games.
Loftus said that the company received almost a hundred design submissions relating to the LSU/Texas A&M game on October 20, so if you see anyone strutting a purple-and-gold shirt with the message “The Original A&M/Founded 1860 (accept no imitations),” you know where they got it. And it’s a safe bet that College District’s “Imagine a World without Alabama” shirt (sporting a U.S. map with an empty void where Alabama ought to be) will be selling well through November 3. “For us it’s all about being able to move fast,” explained Loftus. We chase the demand. If I had to put a word on the style, it would be ‘Timely. Whatever’s current.’” Some of the most interesting designs incorporate crossover pop-culture references, too. One submission up for voting on the company’s website—a Tiger head on a black background—departs from the usual purple-and-gold with a rainbow color scheme that mimics the legendary Apple Rainbow logo. The slogan: “Geaux Different.”
“We try to make [our shirts] a little more smart than the normal LSU shirt,” said Loftus. “We’re limited in what we can come up with ourselves, so if we open it up to everyone, just imagine what we can have to work with!”
MOJO OF LOUISIANA: West Monroe
On the subject of thinking differently, one family-run T-shirt design company has been making a living out of homegrown creative quirk for more than twenty years. From their West Monroe studio, family members Doug Kennedy, John Kennedy, and Kim Kennedy-Bryan’s Mojo of Louisiana has attracted an international audience the old-fashioned way: They let their environment guide them. The Kennedys take their cues from a Southern country aesthetic—old-fashioned advertisements and retro elements of a small-town Louisiana upbringing—then imbue them with wry humor and a worldview widened by plenty of international travel. The result: a hip, sophisticated celebration of Southern country cool that seems somehow analogous to the alt-country music revival of recent years.
Doug Kennedy, graphic artist and the illustrator behind the Pirate Pete series of children’s books (created with sister Kim Kennedy-Bryan), hand-draws all Mojo’s T-shirt designs—a remarkably diverse catalog that ranges from highly detailed woodcuts of ducks and deer, to fake advertisements for subjects that vary from old time Gospel revivals to crop dusters. “I went to school at Louisiana Tech in graphics so long ago there weren’t any computers. So I got good at pen and ink and all those old-school graphics,” explained Doug. He and his siblings were raised in Monroe with a mom who was a painter. The family also had a country place—property in Calhoun about halfway between Monroe and Ruston. “My dad got it in ’69 or ’70,” recalled Doug. “And it’s been very important for me creatively. It’s been part of everything. When I go there it’s just fantastic to work in. That’s where I do all the hardcore thinking that goes into Mojo.”
As well as Monroe and Calhoun, the Kennedys had an uncle in New Orleans. “So we went down there a lot,” recalled Doug, “And I got into the edgier feel of New Orleans and the circus-y, voodoo element of the history there.” That interest adds a dash of wry irreverence to many of Doug’s images, and designs like “Mojo’s Cannibal Barbecue,” “Skullhead” and “Sure Cure for the Blues” all put one in mind of those nineteenth-century ads for things like Smith’s Genuine Snake Oil Elixir and other medicine show quackery. Other designs work as clever in-jokes for locals. Like Mojo’s “Airport Lounge” shirt, that recalls the upstairs bar in the Monroe Airport’s Delta terminal where all the local kids had their first under-aged drink in high school; or a “Ouachita River Party Barge” shirt depicting a barge in full-swing, all the way down to the gators, old tires and the sunken drunk on the river bottom.
Reminiscence. Authenticity. Home—These are the themes that animate Mojo’s designs. As Doug Kennedy says, “To me there’s just a romantic haunting that goes on in Louisiana. It comes up like a smell or a feeling. Then it just falls into things.”
In a world of on-demand machine printing and crowd-sourced design, Mojo remains resolutely tactile, relying on personal experience, superior artistic skills, and a hand-printed process that guarantees that no two shirts are ever exactly the same. From an old building on West Monroe’s Trenton Street that was variously a cotton exchange, hotel and whorehouse before the Kennedys started making art in it, the company screen-prints designs onto their tees by hand—unusual in an era where most T-shirts are printed on massive presses capable of churning out ten thousand shirts a day.
“It’s all about the way you handle the squeegee, with different pressure and angle on the canvas you get different effects,” explained John Kennedy. “Even if the print isn’t perfect there’s beauty in that, too. To me, nothing looks cheaper than a perfect t-shirt. There’s no love involved, it’s not a craft, nor an art. It’s just a commodity.”
In all, John estimates that Mojo produces around fifteen thousand shirts a year—a fraction of the number created by big commercial printing outfits. Many find their way outside of Louisiana; Mojo’s hand-printed shirts are stocked in boutiques around the country and internationally, too. “We send a lot of shirts to Japan,” noted John. The Japanese ‘get it.’ They love the idea of something being hand-crafted.”
Asked why he thinks shirts decorated with old fashioned cameos and ads for Mojo Swamp Juice resonate with hip kids in Chicago or Tokyo, John speculates, “I’m wondering if it’s just Louisiana being removed from what’s become such a homogenized world. In the world of design, [the designers] all become influenced by each other. They all move in the same circles. They’re in L.A., New York, but there’s not any fresh new take on things. Instead of stepping out and taking a different approach, there’s a lot of inbreeding going on. You see it in graphic design, apparel design, handbags; everywhere. But when we do something down here, we’re influenced by what’s around us. The state is poor. We know how to do a lot with a little. That bolsters the creative juices. It gives you a lot to work with.”
So Mojo’s designs might draw from a retro Louisiana aesthetic, but they’re always looking for new ways to present it. Latest project: perfume. “It’s a unisex cologne,” explained John, “created for us by a French perfumer who has done fragrances for Cartier, Armani, Burberry. But in very Mojo-style packaging. Our graphics are going to be on the packaging, and we’re not selling in traditional venues. We’ve made these leather bags—like an old medicine man would carry. We hand-sew them to carry the perfume. It’s a traveling sales kit!”
Just one more way of celebrating Louisiana’s unique culture and sharing it with the world.
Dirty Coast 5631 Magazine Street, New Orleans (504) 324-3475 • dirtycoast.com College District/Tiger District Baton Rouge (225) 250-1100 • tigerdistrict.com • collegedistrict.com Mojo of Louisiana 206 Trenton Street, West Monroe (318) 387-7891 • shopmojo.com In Baton Rouge, find Mojo T-shirts at Noelie Harmon