Written by: D’Shonda Brown
The #ShopBlack Interview Series is a new installation that shines light upon budding and booming Black-owned businesses ran by millennials and Gen-Z’ers who are heavily influenced by hip-hop culture. This time, we’re moving the age gap up, just a bit to highlight this next entrepreneur. Introducing Maurice Hendrix, the lead curator and creative behind Surly Shirts, a line of apparel that speaks so loudly, it made you say, “That’s dope, I get it”. Read below the in-depth interview between D’Shonda Brown and Reese as they talk about the importance of HBCUs, uplifting your fellow entrepreneurs and satirical inspiration.
Hey Reese, pleasure to speak with you! What is Surly Shirts, and what inspired you to start an apparel collection?
Hey D’Shonda, the pleasure is all mine! Hmmmm. What is Surly Shirts? Right now it’s a dope collection of funny, culturally relevant urban t-shirts. Most of the shirts represent different things I’m interested in. From my city, Chicago, to my HBCU, Morehouse, and mixed in TV shows I’m watching, current events and Black culture. However, that’s not how it started.
It started out as, a funny accident maybe? I didn’t set out to start an apparel collection. I was at my desk one day and a friend sent me a link to the website of Xavier Payne’s artwork. He had a bunch of urban culture graphic design posters. I noticed a screen grab of him working on a poster with featuring the cast of Living Single. I noticed the program he was using, Adobe Illustrator, and I thought “oh it’s a program like photoshop, I can do that.” Full disclosure: I didn’t know how to use photoshop.
I don’t know why I was so arrogant, but I thought I knew how to use it. I went to Google for the cost of the program. At the time, it retailed for $800 and I was like “oh well, dream deferred”. On my way home from work, I mentioned it to my friend who said “oh, well you know our homie works at Adobe and he can get it at a discount.” I called said homie and, $40 later, I had the program. The program was not easy to learn. I quit several times. Eventually, I started making posters. One day, another friend said “I’m not buying many posters but that would look hot on a t-shirt.” So, from that point forward, I started making t-shirts.
African Americans have been the target of ridicule and jokes tracing back to Blackface, and even now to negative representations on reality television. However, I think what you’re doing is taking back the art of satire and transforming it into conversational pieces that people absolutely have to buy! What’s the process of creating new shirts, and why this medium?
Let me answer the last question first. “Why this medium?” I love t-shirts. Simple, comfortable and, if your t-shirt game is strong, you get noticed. Plus, as I said, when my buddies saw my work they asked for t-shirts.
As for my process it’s really straight-forward. It just pops into my head. All day we are taking in information and having the most random thoughts. I just take those random thoughts and turn them into t-shirts. For instance, I’ll see a commercial and at the end they show the logo and they tell you the catchphrase. That logo or that catchphrase will trigger a funny thought and I’ll get a picture in my head. At that point it just depends on what time of day it is.
Usually I’ll have to finish up at my day job, come home, spend some time with the family, eat, watch TV and at about midnight, I go down to my basement office to create the design. I’m not traditional in the sense that I don’t sketch it out first; I just go right into Illustrator. I also don’t use a drawing pad, I use the mouse. I bought a drawing pad but could never get as proficient as I was with the mouse. Lastly, I stay up until it’s complete. That may take an hour; it may take three depending on how focused I am. I mock it up on a digital t-shirt, add it to the website and wait to debut it in the morning.
People often times say that laughter comes from pain, and that’s why people such as Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy made such great comedians. Your shirts definitely are comedic and relatable all within great taste and appropriate parameters that make your items safe and comfortable to wear in any setting. What do you want people to feel when they wear your clothes? Or what about when people see them on someone else?
I want people to feel like they are about to walk into the spot with the dopest t-shirt in the room. We’ve all worn things that we just KNEW were going to turn heads and start conversations. That’s the feeling you should have while wearing a Surly Shirt.
Now when you view a Surly Shirt I want a bit of confusion, maybe a double take, some intrigue, then the ‘ah-ha’ moment when you figure out the message. All of that culminating with someone being forced to say “That’s a dope shirt! Where did you get it?” I want people seeing the shirt to be so impressed they have to speak on it. Oddly, I also want a small group of people to say “I don’t get it”. I feel like I make shirts for a special group of people. It’s like a private club. Either you’re clever enough to get it or you ain’t.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like what you do is sort of like how The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin would shamelessly plug in HBCU paraphernalia. Except, you do that with prominent African American figures and movements; like your “Free•ish” shirt, which I am a proud owner of. How did Black history influence your creations?
Being Black today forces you to study Black history. Trying to understand how we got where we are or how you are received and treated by the world makes you want to know what brought this about. As I learn more about the culture, I can’t help but compare historical things to things I experience. Things that happened to our ancestors; racism, brutality, murder, discrimination, then overcoming it all, triumph in the face of overwhelming adversity, still happens today, just in different ways. I try to tap into that and make it wearable art so that people can speak their minds without saying a word. The messages make us feel connected. When you connect with somebody over the struggle beautifully illustrated on a t-shirt, you both feel good.
What are some of the pieces that you’re most proud of, and where do you see your brand going in the next few years? Can we expect to see more in the near future?
I’m most proud of the Free•ish t-shirt and the BBQ Snitch t-shirt because they both were so powerful when I dropped them. They went viral. My message was so clear it resonated with almost everyone who saw them. I know they were good because they got bootlegged the most too.
The next few years? I don’t know. I just want to grow. I want to get my work in front of a larger audience. I think if I consistently put out good stuff over time, that will come. So far, I don’t seem to be running out of ideas. On average I do about three new shirts a month. They aren’t all going viral but I’m constantly working. So yeah, plenty more in store.
Reese H. can be found on Instagram, @Surly_Shirts and, you can also shop your favorite tees now available for purchase online and on Instagram or www.surlyshirts.com.