May 30th '19

Kevin Emerson


Best known for his dye-based work, artist Kevin Emerson creates one-of-a-kind shirts and canvases that are individually dyed and accompanied by hand-drawn or painted illustrations. Together we’ve created a limited capsule collection available exclusively in NYC.

kevin serai: Thanks for having us over at your place.

kevin emerson: Yeah, this looks so weird. I haven’t slept here in like six months. I come here to send e-mails or work on small batches of stuff. This place is like my last resort. The studio is usually first and my girlfriend’s place is second.

ks: You have some great artwork in here. What’s the story behind some of these pieces?

ke: Well the [Eric] Elms piece he gave to me when he moved to L.A. The studio that I work out of now that we’re now moving out of is Elms’ old studio. Joe Garvey, who’s been in there with him for a long time, invited me to have a little corner of his space. I’ve been in there working with Joe and working on my stuff. Using it as more of a showroom. Then the Peter [Sutherland] one, he gave that to me when he was moving out. I feel like everyone just ends up giving me things when they move (laughs).

ks: And that latex one?

ke: Ah, that’s a Justin Adian piece. I love him. He’s one of my favorite artists and luckily somehow he’s one of my best friends now. I met him and Peter and all these other artists because I worked in a gallery for out in the Hamptons. The Fireplace Project. Right across the road from The Pollock-Krasner House. I did that with Edsel [Williams] for like five years. I was his only employee until this year. That’s how Peter and I met. He and Maia [Ruth Lee] had a show out there a few years back and we met and just clicked super well. A month or two after their show, Maia called me and was just like, “Hey would you want to come help us with this project for the art book fair at MoMA?” It ended up being the Zine Tornado. Then that turned into me working for Peter, doing the brand CNY, which I did for about two and a half years. At first I was just doing fulfillment but then started handling all the account work and production and then the international shipping. I learned how to run a company, straight up. It was a small operation and we were running it out of a Manhattan Mini Storage unit. I was showing up with a laptop and an extension cord and printing labels from the mini storage, standing. I’d go twice a week down there on South Street in Chinatown and take as many bags I needed then drop everything off at the East Broadway post office. CNY is the best. Big love to the Sutherland family.

I’d skate to work, throw on a suit, put my hair back in a bun and sell handbags

ks: And then you’d do those season enders where you’d dye a bunch of stuff right?

ke: Yeah, that was funny, man. That’s kind of how, in a way, this whole thing started with me doing tie-dye. Well, way before that, I had made a lot of dyed shirts when I was younger. My dad was super into the Allman Brothers and stuff. I just remember growing up and he was always wearing tie-dyed shirts and my sister was like a Phishhead and a Deadhead. I grew up in rural western Massachusetts so it was definitely around me. I would just make them to wear myself, nothing crazy. After I got out of school, I travelled just skateboarding around for a few years and working some retail jobs. When I lived in Boston, I’d skate to work, throw on a suit, put my hair back in a bun and sell handbags (laughs). I eventually moved to NYC and started working at a book store and working at a gallery.

ks: So then that all lead you to CNY?

ke: Exactly. A couple of years ago Peter came to me and wanted to do you a bunch of tie-dyes. He asked me if I could find somebody that could do them. I wish I still had the reference photos, all these weird old shirts. He was like, “Send these to some tie-dye people see what they say.” And this is like three or four years ago. No one really responded to me. They were probably like, “Get the fuck out of here. Why are you sending me screenshots of Dead shirts?” (laughs) Finally, I was just like, “I’ll do them.”

ks: When was the last time you dyed something prior to that?

ke: I don’t even know, maybe six or seven years? (laughs) But he trusted me with it. I only had like 100 of them to do, but not a single one of them were the same color or same pattern. They came out and people were stoked on them. Two months later he’s like, “Let’s do sweatshirts.” Then people started hitting me up. I did some stuff for different artists—some canvases, some small runs of shirts. Then I was doing big orders for Joe Garvey, and fast forward, that’s all I was doing. Sometime last year I had just stopped working with Peter on CNY and was on my way out of working at LQQK [Studio] every day. So again I got to that point of, “What do I want to really do?” I wanted to make shirts, but the idea of thinking of a concept, waiting three months to execute and produce a full run—that’s just so much time. There’s this artist Tony Tafuro that I really, really like, and he was doing just straight fabric marker and paint marker to garments. He was doing them for book fairs and zine fairs, and his own website. I always liked his stuff. I feel like every book fair, I’d go up to his booth and buy one from him.

It was kind of like we were playing telephone with a t-shirt

ks: So you’ve known him for a while?

ke: Yeah, I’ve known him for a while, and I’ve bought a lot of shirts off him over the years. I wanted to like figure out a way to work with him. I was on an errand in Chelsea one day, and I bumped into him getting off an elevator. We literally walked into each other. I was wearing a shirt that I bought from him that I had tie-dyed, and he was like, “Yoo that looks crazy! We should link up and talk.” I wanted to just make stuff with a bunch of other artists. Just come up with different concepts and do small runs and move on. With Tony, I wanted to dye patterns on shirts, give them to him blind, and have him just react to them and do his thing, so both of us wouldn’t know what each other was going to do. That was the concept. It was kind of like we were playing telephone with a t-shirt. We were going to do just 20 shirts and we’re now at probably like 200.

The network of friends supporting us is definitely giving it life a bit. The rapper Buddy, got into the stuff thru some friends, and so we gave him a sweatshirt and he was wearing it on tour. He’s awesome, he’s also tight with Vintage Sponsor and guys at The Good Company, who I also just did a project with. The network just keeps growing (laughs). (A$AP) Rocky wore a few of our tees. That was through a mutual friend that works with him.

ks: Tons of people must have been asking for them after that.

ke: Yeah it was kind of insane. Luckily at that time, Tony and I weren’t sure what our end game was, so we were just cranking and we had a bit of stock. But our endgame is not becoming a big brand or a brand at all. We’re still hand-signing our names and everything because we’re both still making everything.

The reality is these things take us a long time to make, they’re artworks

ks: I think that’s a huge part of why people love it so much.

ke: The more people get into it the more time and care we’re putting into everything. If we made it a brand and demand got crazy, it would probably make us start phoning everything in and just splashing a drop on a shirt and scribbling something and we don’t want to do that. And we don’t want to make it so exclusive that no one can have it and we don’t want to price them up so high that people can’t afford them. But the reality is these things take us a long time to make, they’re artworks.

ks: So what are you planning next?

ke: Well Tony and I are leveling up and getting a space together. That’s a huge thing. As our work is growing together, it’s growing separately also. I’m branching out and getting to work with people that I’m super, super psyched to be working with and with materials that aren’t just t-shirts. I was really hyped to work with you guys on these micro corduroy shirts. The material composition of those versus other work shirts or dress shirts are totally different. These are so nice. That was a huge draw. That and your concept of wanting to do something special for the Crosby shop but still stay true to classic silhouettes that you have—that was why I didn’t want to fully body them and make them completely insane. I felt like I should do something adaptable to these pieces to uphold that brand identity but also have a little bit of restrained freakiness going on.

Tie Dye is classically a happy thing I think, good vibe promotion. Ours is the dark side of the shroom. Like a memory from a bad trip. But there might’ve been some beautiful moments in that bad trip.

ks: Seems like tie-dye is just about everywhere right now.

ke: It is and I feel like restraint is almost more virtuous at this point. For me it’s almost like the simpler it is, the more you can focus on detail. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of people making good stuff and it’s amazing. But yeah it’s everywhere. Tie dye work is classically a happy thing I think, good vibe promotion. Ours is the dark side of the shroom. Like a memory from a bad trip, but there might’ve been some beautiful moments in that bad trip (laughs).■

Kevin Emerson is a Brooklyn-based artist. View more of his work here.