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Airing your Views : Want to Get Something Off Your Chest Put It on a T-Shirt

August 25, 1994|KATHRYN BOLD / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

People are wearing their hearts on their sleeves, or rather their fronts and backs, by sporting T-shirts with political, economic of likestyle messages. Instead of designer names, these shirts offer pithy observations about life or promote a cause, from saving the dolphins to fighting AIDS. They're the equivalent of a fashion sound bite.

Earth Crisis, a nonprofit network of artists in Irvine, has used T-shirts to foster awareness of environmental and social issues. Money raised from sales of the shirts goes to organizations such as Greenpeace and youth shelters.

To quote its T-shirt: "Education is Free. Ignorance is Costly," "Exxon Don't Surf" (a commentary on the Exxon Valdez oil spill That is still a hot seller, Forever," which has a picture of a black rhino or a white tiger. The "Danger Contaminated Water" shirts protest against ocean pollution.

"We get the message across in a bolder, more visual way," says Mark Sperling, one of the artists who handles marketing for the group. "The shirts are made for couch potatoes who want to do something but don't want to chain themselves to a tree. We call them closet activists."

One line of T-shirts produced by Earth Crisis benefits Art for Life's Sake, an AIDS prevention campaign founded by Earth Crisis artist Mark Smith, whose brother tested positive for HIV several years ago. Smith created an AIDS prevention logo featuring a circle with a dot symbolizing the disease and a line drawn through the middle to indicate prevention.

"T-shirts are a great medium to get the message out," Smith says. Whether they're shopping or going to the movies, people wearing shirts with his AIDS symbol become like moving billboards.

Earth Crisis T-shirts, made of recycled cotton and equipped with tags that offer recycling tips, sell for around $18 in 50 stores around the country, including Elements in Irvine, and through a mail-order catalogue (available by calling (714) 646-2368).

The Surfrider Foundation in San Clemente, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, uses T-shirts--the preferred uniform of surfers--to spread the message of ocean preservation while raising money for its cause.

While they look like typical surfer T-shirts complete with wave and surfboard graphics, these Ts--with slogans such as "Respect the Beach," "Sea the Beauty" and "Keepers of the Coast"--promote the ocean instead of a surfwear manufacturer. The shirts are available for about $16 at surf shops and mail order by calling (714) 492-0257.

Environmental causes are a favorite of T-shirts at Mother's Market & Kitchen in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.

The shirts (about $10 to $20) have save-the-Earth slogans such as "Respect Your Mother" (with an illustration of a globe), "Let Them Live Wild and Free" (accompanied by a picture of timber wolves) and "Wild About Organic."

"People want them to express a consciousness," says Jessica Wharton, department manager of Mother's Market in Costa Mesa. "They want to show their beliefs."

There's virtually no topic--politics, sex or religion-- that can't be condensed onto a T-shirt.

Christian messages that tackle everything from abortion to pop psychology can be found on T-shirts at the Celebration Christian Bookstore in Santa Ana.

Many of the shirts mimic the surfer shirts, with earthy colors and bold logos, but they deal with religious issues. One shirt has an illustration of the Crucifixion with the saying, "If I'm OK and you're OK, explain this." Anti-abortion slogans and Scripture passages are popular as well. The shirts sell for about $15.

As a mode of communication, T-shirts are especially suited to Southern Californians, whose short attention spans require an easy-to-digest medium, says Eric Casteel, manager of Celebration. People are bombarded with information in this TV age, and the philosophical blips encapsulated on T-shirts are short enough for them to absorb, he says.

"We have the type of culture perfect for a message that fits on a T-shirt," Casteel says.

Like personalized license plates, the shirts also appeal to the individual's desire to stand out from the crowd.

Sometimes "the only thing that can set you apart is your clothes," he says. "It's easier to make yourself an individual by wearing something on a T-shirt."

For followers of New-Age thinking, T-shirts can be a way to connect with a soul mate, if not the universe.

"A T-shirt with a message attracts people of like mind. If you're into angels and you see someone with an angel T-shirt, you're attracted to that person," says Lorene Judd, manager of Visions & Dreams Emporium in Costa Mesa.

The shop carries T-shirts designed to get people thinking, with a simple word and symbol signifying metaphysical concepts such as "Infinity," "Clarity" or "Imagination." Each sells for $19.95.

"If you're into fashion, it makes a statement. It's like a bumper sticker. You're putting out a message," Judd says. "Others will see a word like infinity and start to think about that. You're putting a positive vibration instead of a negative, violent one."

Then there are T-shirts that make a statement against making statements. One such shirt comes with an illustration of a box and the word "Trendless" ($17), available at Elements in Irvine. Says salesman Tim Zakharov:

"You've got your grunge; you've got your rap. Everyone has to wear the right kind of clothes and the right kind of T-shirt. This is the answer to that."

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