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JHolzBack Boot Boyz Biz tee
Photography Matthew Schaffer

The Chicago bootleggers making the t-shirts of your dreams

Referencing everything from Jenny Holzer to the NSA, Boot Boyz Biz are turning graphic ephemera into brilliantly niche designs

Have you ever wanted a t-shirt that manages to reference Jenny Holzer, BMWs and China’s one-child policy? No? Well, now you will. Inspired by a desire to make the pieces they most wanted to own but wouldn’t ever find, anonymous Chicago collective Boot Boyz Biz are scouring books and trawling the internet for graphic ephemera with which to create fantasy clothing. Brilliantly niche (but with helpful information breaking down the references, from fonts used by the NSA to scans from 1982 issues of NME) the pieces they design are like self-contained, cross-disciplinary art projects, and each drop comes with a zine, the Boot Journal. In all their obscurity, the designs do away with the idea that t-shirt brands can’t contain the same kind of intellectual authority as the loftiest fashion houses, that humble plain cotton isn’t as relevant a medium for experimentation as a couturier’s toile or artist’s canvas.

Who are you and what kind of creative backgrounds do you have?

Boot Boyz Biz: We live and work in Chicago, IL with various practices, ranging from graphic design, service industry, and publishing jobs.

Where did the idea for Boot Boyz Biz come from?

Boot Boyz Biz: We grew real sick and tired of the conversation ‘Wouldn’t it be sick to have a _____ shirt?’. There was a tipping point where the irritation turned into a collective energy where we decided that we weren’t going to wait and be suckered into letting eBay, mainstay bootleggers or anyone else to provide or create the shit we wanted to wear. On top of finally making the shit we wanted, we also wanted to take bootlegs to the next level.

What fascinates you about bootlegs?

Boot Boyz Biz: The bootleg platform allows us to explore our interests candidly while continuing to develop critical inquiries with the ideas and images we safeguard. Our experience is that bootleg process creates an autonomous space where we feel we’re most in control of the images (and their ideas/meanings) that are most important to us.

The bootlegging practice allows us to update, subvert or erase these original meanings to create histories and realities that are attractive to us. We see bootlegging as a powerful practice because shirts are truly a remarkable mode to distribute ideas and knowledge. We’re interested in how an image’s meaning changes as it’s pushed through various contexts. Grinding disparate elements together always provides fascinating results and revealing truths.

How do you conceive of a t-shirt and decide what to put on it?

Boot Boyz Biz: We’re constantly adding to an endless list of t-shirts we’d like to produce. Topics are then thoroughly investigated and researched. A boot design comes together as we piece together elements discovered through our digging process.

Where do you tend to find the logos and graphics?

Boot Boyz Biz: Our digging process has little bounds. Eyeballs turn away to nothing…dozens of new tabs in the browser. We certainly wouldn’t exist without things like JSTOR, Discogs, eBay or art school libraries. These dig sessions can end up being like an endless YouTube “Suggestions you may like” hole. Finding that rare and buried ephemera we’ve been looking for, but often never knew existed in the first place is the exact euphoria in our process. The motivation comes from not selling shit but finding pieces of diminished or obscured culture we’ll be breathing life into.

“The bootlegging practice allows us to update, subvert or erase these original meanings to create histories and realities that are attractive to us. We see bootlegging as a powerful practice because shirts are truly a remarkable mode to distribute ideas and knowledge” - Boot Boyz Biz 

Are you ever worried about copyright? Did you have to read up on the legal side of things?

Boot Boyz Biz: We find copyright law to be unfortunate especially for the context we’re in. We believe it stifles creativity and imposes limits on possibility. We hope ANYONE who has helped bring original content into this world would appreciate the objects and garments we produce. We’re here to make sure the spirit remains, and the flame still burns.

Are there any themes that run throughout the archive of tees you’ve made?

Boot Boyz Biz: We’re always investigating phenomena that’s been largely forgotten or buried under our contemporary visual landscape. How various phenomena choose to use typography for their ideas is consistently interesting to us. Music and band tees have been a jumping point but we’re now realising the potential of a departure into the other phenomenon that influences other people’s lives and ours. We’re in the business of staying open minded and ridding ourselves of dogma.

Internet teen Asspizza recently made a load of bootleg Kanye march, claiming it was ‘more real than the real thing’ – do you think that bootlegs are somehow more legitimate than whatever they’re ripping off?

Boot Boys Biz: The idea of realness is obviously subjective but Bootlegs for us is not about subverting authenticity but about paying tribute and providing a vehicle and movement. Giving new breath to OG images, texts and ideas while at the same time activating them in a contemporary context is what’s truly real to us.

How come the tees are so cheap?

Boot Boys Biz: We all grew up in punk and hardcore circles where touring bands sell one colour tees for $10. Selling for much more than that still feels weird and uncomfortable. We get to keep the prices low because our costs our low. Every garment we produce is hand-printed in our studio in Chicago. We cut all possible corners and ditch as many frivolous costs as possible and do everything ourselves. Owning the means of production and keeping everything affordable is essential to the project. We see tees as ephemeral rather than fragile. Our price point allows us to move shirts quick. No one, including us, likes sitting on shit. Ducking in and out is what keeps the project alive and healthy.

What’s next?

Boot Boys Biz: New groups of Bootleg product every month. Group 5 coming early August. Pushing and expanding our version of the ’bootleg’ process. We’re now experimenting with guest and celeb boots, inviting others to participate in our process. Experimenting with new garments on the horizon…