Point 'Em Out is an editorial series where Ida Harris explores the latest and the greatest in Black art. Thanks to modern-day technology, we get to be virtual consumers of yesterday's icons and today’s most innovative Black artwork, and — if we're lucky — the Black geniuses who produce them.
Since hip-hop’s inception, art and hood fashion have always intersected with the music. The cult classic, Beat Street, and more recently the historical throwback sensation, The Get Down, are films that closely depict their association.
In the 1980s, as the hip-hop genre evolved and the culture became more fresh-to-death, and graffiti artists turned New York City public transportation into murals, an artistic trio hailing from Manhattan's High School of Art and Design — which boasts alumni such as Lorna Simpson, Mobb Deep, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein — came together. King Kasheme, King Phade and Mighty Nike came together like Voltron, becoming the Mighty Shirt Kings, a creative force to be reckoned with.
Shirt Kings transformed the relationship between three creative worlds: art, hip-hop and fashion. The three artists from Brooklyn and Queens launched the creative brand from a cozy booth in South Jamaica's infamous Colosseum Mall.
Upon setting up shop in 1986, the triumvirate began selling apparel that showcased their artistic prowess: sweatshirts, denim jackets and jeans with airbrushed cartoon caricatures. These weren't the typical drawings seen at state fairs and carnivals, but rather animated figures Black hip-hop culture could relate to. Bart Simpson rocking a three-finger name ring; Minnie Mouse wearing bamboo earrings — at least two pairs; Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones and Betty Boop donning fat rope chains, Gucci attire and other blinged-out accouterments gracing their garments. Thematically, anything the imagination could conjure the Shirt Kings could translate using articles of clothing as a canvas.
The innovative street style was trendy. The surrounding community consumed it at a massive rate, and before long the style penetrated the hip-hop industry — the rest is history.
Blavity caught up with Mighty Nike, one-third of the Shirt Kings team, to learn about the Shirt King phenomenon and get all up in his business.
Blavity: What was your art background before you got into Shirt Kings?
Mighty Nike: It started when I was a kid. I watched one of my older sisters. She was into fashion, and she started to draw and make patterns for clothes for all of us in the house. I liked the fact that she could draw; "Wow, I wonder if I could do that?"
So, I just picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and started drawing from the Sunday funnies, from back in the day, tracing and everything. I started to have love for it. Eventually, I wanted to see if I could do it from the look of things, and I saw I had the knack and skill for that. It became a love and passion. This started way back when, you know? I have my older sister to thank for bringing my talent out that I didn’t know was installed in me. I had to be around eight or nine years old.
Blavity: You weren’t classically trained, and you started by the influence of your sister. Did you carry that into school?
Mighty Nike: We all, me and Kasheme, who’s no longer with us, we became friends, and went to the High School of Art and Design together. I got into art and design because of my passion for drawing. I took the test for the school and got in. I had teachers that helped you develop your different feel of art. Cartooning was my favorite.
Then you had commercial art, still-life — these different feels help you develop your real skills, feel and where you stand in art. Like I said, cartooning was my strong point, and that’s what helped bring Shirt Kings to life.
Blavity: How did the brand develop?
Mighty Nike: Kasheme, Phade and myself went to the High School of Art and Design, and we met and became friends. Phade was the one that did shirts. He wasn’t airbrushing or anything. He did silk-screen shirts with a guy we went to school with. Matter of fact, it was A$AP Ferg’s father [also named Ferg] that Phade worked with.
Phade told him he had a graffiti partner that showed him how to airbrush on canvas, but he wanted to do it on shirts. So Ferg told him, “You need to go to Nike, who used to draw them cartoons and everything,” and that’s what he did. He went looking for me.
At the time I was staying with an old girlfriend in Coney Island, and my mother didn’t have a number to contact me. So, he had to contact Kasheme — Kasheme knew how to contact me. He found Kasheme, taught him the ropes because he had already learned it, and next thing you know, they contacted me and was talking to me about the idea of painting on shirts, and this and that.
I was like, "I’m working construction. I don’t know how to airbrush. I didn’t learn that in school."
They were like, “We’ll teach you.”
I was like, "Well, if I get laid off or whatever, maybe I'll consider it." And like two weeks later, I got laid off. I call these dudes up like, "Yo what’s that shirt stuff y'all was talking about?"
Next thing you know I got up with Kasheme, we met up with Phade, and they were showing me the ropes. And I was like, "I’m not willing to do this, but I can still hand-paint for the time being." I had to still eat.
A friend of ours who believed in us gave us the money to get a booth in the Colosseum, [on] Jamaica Avenue. Phade came down and we sat in the booth. Kasheme and Phade were drawing on sweatshirts, and I see them with the airbrush, and I was sitting there wondering, "When can I do this?"
At the time, I was still hand-painting, but we said, "This is cool. We need to come up with a name."
We tried initials, but they was corny. And I said, "We masters at this." And I’m not sure if it was me or Phade, but we was like, "Nah, we going to be like kings — kings of this s**t, shirt kings."
That’s when the name struck a bell. We all said, “I like that” — and that’s where the name came from.
Blavity: Who came up with the different concepts? Everyone had their own thing, but I saw a theme. How did y'all come up with concepts?
Mighty Nike: I was into cartoons, and I had been drawing for a while, and Phade and Kasheme remembered my old drawings.
They asked, “You still got that book of Smurfs you used to draw, wearing all the fly gear and jewelry and Adidas?”
I said, "Yeah." And next thing you know, I’m bringing all my cartoons. I used to draw a picture of Mickey Mouse with a pair of gazelles on his head leaning on a bottle of Moët with some Jordan’s. We hung it up and that’s how we started. That’s how I became an important part of Shirt Kings.
Kasheme and Phade were graffiti artists; I couldn’t do graffiti — so that’s where the characters come to play.
And when people saw what we did with the characters and dressing them in the fashion of that era they would come and say, "Can I have Bambi or Winnie the Pooh wearing this and that?”
That’s how we became unique artists in hip-hop. We could customize anything you wanted. It didn’t have to be cartoons, we did portraits, cars.
Blavity: I remember the art evolving. You started incorporating rhinestones, jean jackets. It went from just shirts to all clothing quickly. Who was the first rapper to cop a Shirt King original?
Mighty Nike: I have to give it to Biz Markie. He was the first one that sat down with us. He saw us at the booth, it wasn’t so much that it attracted so much attention, but it was enough for people to see us when they came down the steps, we were straight ahead.
Here comes Biz — you can tell when a rapper is in the Colosseum, because you can hear people scream and all that. He spotted us, looked around, saw some things he liked, chatted with us, beatboxed for us.
Next thing you know, he said, "Make me a shirt. I'll wear it. I'll put it in a magazine."
I was the best with portraits, so I did the shirt and he wore it in Black Beat magazine — for real. He put us on the map and all the other rappers came behind him and wanted something.
Blavity: Give me a rundown of five notables during that era; rappers that copped from you.
Mighty Nike: LL definitely put a stamp on it for us. LL wore his shirt everywhere; his shirt is well known. The Koreans even stole the design, and put it on shirts, and was selling them on the Ave; they stole the picture from Right On magazine, and had his picture with him wearing the shirt on their shirts, with my name right next to it. I couldn’t believe it!
The third ones were Salt and Pepa, because LL was cool with Cheryl and Sandy — they came. I did one for Markie D of the Fat Boys. I knew him before Shirt Kings. After that, I’d have to say Eric B. & Rakim. There’s other people like Malcolm-Jamal Warner; he wanted to meet us. And I did one for him — he’s wearing it on The Cosby Show. That was big.
Blavity: If you had to pull a number from the air, how many pieces have y'all produced?
Mighty Nike: That’s a hard one. Like you said there were shirts, jackets, sneakers, jumpers, walls! We did a wall for Luke in his Florida office, 2 Live Crew. We did logos, so that’s so hard to answer.
The name was Shirt Kings, but we were artists. We did art on everything; it wasn’t just cartooning and graffiti. We were on Yo! MTV Raps and we did a gigantic backdrop for Black History Month, and they didn’t want to give it back — they kept it. It was cool; we were on Yo! MTV Raps. So, I can’t even pull a number out of a hat on that one.
Blavity: Are you still producing work for today’s hip-hop elite?
Mighty Nike: Well not really. The last big thing we’ve done was for MCM the clothing line. They put out a blog on social media trying to contact us. That was exciting. So me, Phade and the new inductee into shirt kings — his name is Izzy — we flew to LA for a pop-up store. We airbrushed on bags. I did a bag for Slick Rick's wife. So that was nice, it was a gala affair. The following three months, they needed us in Manhattan to do it again. That’s the latest and biggest thing we’ve done. The name is still alive. I still airbrush to this day.
Blavity: What’s Shirt Kings' most noticeable piece?
Mighty Nike: I would say the album cover for Audio Two — and once we did that, that really sent us. Everyone looked at us differently then. The hip-hop industry had to respect us even more. We were like the graffiti or street version of Dapper Dan. We were the only two places to get hip-hop fashion wear in that era. Once the rappers would wear any of that stuff, everybody wanted to be like the rappers and wear what they wear. We have to take our hats off to the rappers that set it off. From Dapper Dan to the rappers, they gave us notoriety and respect in the culture. Like these guys are part of hip-hop history.
Blavity: It's funny you would say that, because I would think it was the other way around where the street culture and street fashion was influential for rappers.
Mighty Nike: It was, but with rappers comes fashion. There’s jewelry [and] there’s clothes; what’s popping that you can wear that can make you stand out. Where everybody looks at you like this performer and says, "Wow. You seen this and that?! You seen his jewelry?” So, it was the fashion that was a big part. You can buy a regular pair of Lee's or Levi’s, but that wasn’t something that was hard to get. Something that would make you stand out.
So that’s when Dapper Dan came out with the Gucci and Louis Vuitton and customizing it, making it stand out. Then came the Shirt Kings customizing jackets and jeans, rhinestones and all of that, they needed that, to stand out. That’s what appealed to the audience. So yeah, the rappers did get their looks from the streets to be different and stand out.
Blavity: What’s your absolute favorite piece? My jacket right?
Mighty Nike: Well yes, of course! Your jacket was leather, right?
Blavity: Yup, it was Unicorn.
Mighty Nike: See that’s what I’m saying; we was doing leather, and stepping out into different mediums and mastering — and leather was not easy. So yeah, your jacket, and all the other leather ones that we’ve done.
It's hard though, because I like all the backdrops we used to do for the photographers. They would have it made so they could take pictures outside of the club or whatever, all over town in Harlem. It's really hard to say what’s my favorite. You know what? I might have to say my favorite honestly is LL’s shirt.
Blavity: Because of the sentimental value, or because you like the work you put into that shirt?
Mighty Nike: It’s both, a combination. More of the fact that the shirt was so much in the eyes of Koreans — that they stole it and mass-produced it! To see that, they admired it so much they stole it. I don’t know if they liked the artwork so much, or if LL was just so popping at the time, but to see that walking on Jamaica Avenue, it did something for me, even though I’ve done work way better than that and way more detailed — that and the Audio Two’s album cover.
Mighty Nike: We didn’t do their jackets. We didn’t do Blackstreet’s jackets. There was this guy, named Rico. He was from Detroit and he came down one time to see us. I was outside the Colosseum on the phone. He said he was looking for Shirt Kings.
I said, "Our booth is right downstairs. I’ll be down and you can talk to my partners." I looked up five minutes later, he was coming out. I said, "You found them?"
He said, "I’m good,” and walked off.
I went downstairs and found out he went to talk to Kasheme, and Kasheme is a little more aggressive. He was like, “You know we Shirt Kings. We don’t need you, blah blah blah,” and the guy Rico went on to do his own thing.
He started doing everybody. Everybody was telling us, "I seen the jackets yall did for Teddy Riley."
And I was like, “Yo, we didn’t do them.” So then I found out it’s the guy Rico. I was like this guy could have been on our team. He did his thing. He did big numbers with Aaron Hall and Teddy Riley.
The other people thought it was us, and they were like, "Man their work is getting nicer and nicer."
I was like, "Man, if we would have only kept this dude."
Blavity: I was curious if there was any hostility or animosity around it, but you cleared it up.
Mighty Nike: Well you know, I was the more laid back one out of us three.
I was like, "Hey man, we still Shirt Kings." There’s always gonna be someone out there nicer than you, no matter how nice you are. But we made a name for ourselves, we made a brand for ourselves, so people were still going to come to us. He had to make a name for himself, and he went out there and did it.
I ain't have no animosity. I can’t speak to how Kasheme felt or how Phade felt, but when it came to me I was like, "Listen — it is what it is. We still the Shirt Kings."
Blavity: What are y'all doing now?
Mighty Nike: Well, we lost Kasheme in 2003 of a brain aneurysm. Phade is over in LA, and he does Shirt King work. He still paints, travels, does inspirational talks, goes to other countries, [and] hangs around Dapper Dan when he’s in town. One time, I got a job through Nike, and we had to do Air Max weekend, and I called and said we got a job. He called another time and he had another project through Nike, they wanted us to draw cartoon characters of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
Phade is doing what he’s doing and I’m over here with Izzy. I tattoo right now. The name of my business is Murda Ink. Still, I’m always gonna be Shirt Kings, and I’m never gonna stop painting and airbrushing, or drawing because I’m an artist by nature — it’s my passion.