Exhibition curator Eddie Zammit, who began collecting T-shirts in the 1990s, has amassed 4000.

Exhibition curator Eddie Zammit, who began collecting T-shirts in the 1990s, has amassed 4000. Photo: Nicole Reed

In Banksy and Shepard Fairey's rascally art-world romp Exit through the Gift Shop (2010), its seemingly hapless star, Thierry Guetta, aka Mr Brainwash, develops a massively popular line in art derivatives. The show is a sellout. The prodigious artist's cause celebre fuses Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can with the graffiti artist's stock-in-trade, the spray can. As it says on the tin, it's ''Tomato Spray''.

That larrikin spirit is something Australians readily salute. Indeed, that very impulse to legitimise street art and question so-called ''high art'' motivates Australian graffiti artist Jay Rankine, aka Merda. Coincidentally, Merda committed the same spray-can act 20 years earlier. His canvas was a T-shirt.

In 1989, while a student at Prahran Art College, Merda was selling T-shirt designs to Darren Till from Renegade in Greville Street. ''Darren had a brief to grab a piece of modern art and cross it over with graffiti,'' he says. When Till suggested Warhol's soup can, the transformation to spray can was a no-brainer. ''Modern art was accepted, graffiti wasn't, so if you joined both of them together, it made sense. Graffiti will be an accepted art form.''

Designer Merda's modern twist on the Warhol Campbell's soup can.

Designer Merda's modern twist on the Warhol Campbell's soup can.

They sold 100 shirts. It took a year.

While the art world is coming to terms with graffiti as an art form, its impact on streetwear has continued unabated since the 1990s.

Merda is one of many influential figures featuring in a new exhibition at the NGV Studio, TEES: Exposing Melbourne's T-Shirt Culture. With T-shirt obsessive Eddie Zammit and Just Another Agency as curators, the exhibition features design paraphernalia, a ''graveyard of signage'' and some 500 T-shirts (mostly from Zammit's own collection of 4000, which he has housed in three storage units in Mornington).

T-shirt design from Misha Hollenbach's P.A.M. label.

T-shirt design from Misha Hollenbach's P.A.M. label.

''I grew up wearing Renegade tees and a lot of those I liked were by Merda,'' the 38-year-old collector says. As a graphic designer himself, Zammit has always been interested in the bold impact of that most simple garment. It's the reach and immediacy as well that's appealing. ''T-shirts are like Coke,'' he says. ''Everyone drinks it. T-shirts are way more accessible than jeans because of the price.''

While Zammit's collecting began in earnest during the '90s, he promises the exhibition will cater for everyone. ''I'm featuring nearly everyone who's ever had anything to do with T-shirts in Melbourne,'' he declares. ''I don't want it to be seen as, 'it's all about rave culture', or 'all about streetwear'. I do want to show that it's quite far-reaching. Everyone has a different take on it.'' Staples such as music, sport, slogans and humour feature - ''I heart Frankston'' he considers a bona fide classic - but it's the designers who interest.

As adorable as Frankston may be, if streetwear has an actual address it's around Prahran's Greville and Chapel streets. Many of the most important labels formed there: Abyss, Funk Essentials, Renegade, Galaxy and Burn among them. Nowadays, an address is a URL on which labels such as Bad, Meet Evil and Grand Scheme have flourished. Indeed, while a history of Melbourne - or the Burn, as it's known to hipsters - can be viewed through T-shirt design, its periods pivot on the internet. Before the internet, you could not only strike up a conversation over a T-shirt, you could form lasting friendships.

A Burn 'Mel Burn' t-shirt design.

One of Burn's 'Mel Burn' t-shirt designs.

''I remember bonding over an X-Large T-shirt, and she's still my best friend,'' illustrator Beci Orpin says of those pre-search-engine days. ''It was very underground and very hard to find, and exclusive. Once you had found somebody else who had sourced that stuff out, you were on a level. It was a set of knowledge. The fact that she was wearing this thing, I knew she had to know about it.''

The downside to it being subcultural was that it was subcultural.

''It became very tribal,'' designer Bruce Slorach says. In contrast, the '80s underground had much more crossover, he says. ''Venues like the Crystal Ballroom, St Moritz and the Hardware Club would run fashion shows in between sets by Nick Cave and the Birthday Party. There was also a more free-form influence from Vivienne Westwood. A lot of T-shirts were taking the notion of a T-shirt and morphing it with bondage straps. That generic accessibility is something we tried to go beyond, and make something from scratch and have a weird shape.''

Schwipe's 'Ketamine is a drug for horses' tee.

Schwipe's 'Ketamine is a drug for horses' tee.

If '80s fashion and music were defined by London and punk/new wave, the '90s were dominated by New York and hip-hop. It became streetwear's soundtrack.

In Melbourne, one of the prime movers in the street-culture scene was Slorach's Funk Essentials. ''The problem was, you couldn't veer off,'' he says. ''The harder-edge hip-hop and gangsta stuff was an interesting aesthetic to play with, but in the end it became a bit narrow.''

Marketing boffins dub the core market of subcultural groups ''image leaders''. If a brand deviates from its core audience and becomes too commercial, they jump ship. Ironically, Slorach was an image leader abandoning his own vessel. In the mid-'90s he left town to art-direct for Mambo in Sydney. Meanwhile, Richard Allan, who designed Mambo's bestseller Farting Dog, came to Melbourne to establish Mooks. An Australian irreverence defines them both. Allan eventually left Mooks, too.

''Australia struggles with its own identity, and that's why labels like Mambo are so good,'' Zammit says. ''They are one of the few that created that identity through our sense of humour. People take themselves way too seriously.'' By decade's end the local label Schwipe emerged, slowly bridging many of those essential independent ingredients. Its founder, Tim Everist, rekindled an '80s spirit of cross-pollination, '90s street culture and, importantly, Australian humour. Briefly incorporating a gallery and a shop called Don't Come, the label lasted for 10 years before closing in 2009.

''Don't Come should be credited as one of the stores really getting into that secret shopping experience that Melbourne is known for - the hard-to-find store for people in the know,'' Zammit says.

''Don't Come is hilarious. It was in the Royal Arcade on the third floor. And people didn't come,'' he says, cackling.

Schwipe's subversive slogans and sly humour ran to commonsense health warnings, aimed at ravers, such as ''Ketamine is a drug for horses'', while ''Islam is OK'' in happy bubbly writing was a bestseller.

''They regarded themselves as agitators,'' Zammit says. ''They liked people to think about it. And I think that stems back to Mambo.'' Unfortunately for Schwipe, it arrived in the age of the internet but died just before the age of social networking. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram et al, the internet has allowed young designers to maintain their personal vision without selling out. They can, like 23-year-old designer J.R.F. from Bad, Meet Evil, talk directly with the buyers.

Further evidence to the boon the internet has become to today's subcultures is Zammit's own magazine.

Since 2006 he has published a magazine dedicated solely to T-shirts, T-World. Such a highly specialised journal would probably have floundered if not for the ability of fellow obsessives to find each other.

While paying tribute to local labels past and present, Zammit hopes the exhibition will inspire. He believes artists should embrace the ''relatively low-paid'' blank T-shirt. ''You get your stuff out there,'' he says. ''If it's good enough for Andy Warhol and Ron English, then artists should absolutely put their art on T-shirts.'' Mr Brainwash does.

Shirting the issue

J.R.F. - Bad, Meet Evil: Taking the name from an Eminem track, J.R.F.'s Bad, Meet Evil label began two years ago. ''Music is paramount,'' the 23-year-old designer says. ''I've always had a love of hip-hop and creativity, and this is a way I can get my work out in a cool way and at the least amount of cost. I'm lucky to be operating in this day and age. People love being able to talk to the guy who created the design. People like that interaction.''

Zammit: ''Loads of stores knocked him back and a lot of people underestimated his determination. He's the new wave of the way people buy T-shirts.''

Beci Orpin - Princess Tina: Illustrator Beci Orpin studied textile design before working for Mambo, Stussy et al. Her biggest inspiration was designer Mike Mills and the Beastie Boys' X-Large. Japanese design, such as A Bathing Ape, has been an ongoing influence. ''I found it hard to find a good cut for girls because all T-shirts were boys' cuts,'' Orpin says. ''So I wanted to design my own T-shirt that was not fitted but female. The thing that runs through my work is that it's female without being girly or overly feminine. I hate to say tough and edgy.''

Zammit: ''Beci is a huge influence, especially for girls. She's developed a very unique style that's hard in a world replicated with images. Out of hundreds of T-shirts, I can still pick a Beci Orpin.''

Brendan Elliott - Burn: ''We weren't the first to use the word 'MelBurn' but we used it a lot on T-shirts,'' Elliott says. ''It comes from the hip-hop scene. To 'burn' is to do something very well. And it stuck and became popular. Sydney is 'sin city'. And Melbourne is referred to as Burn city. Obviously it's good for my brand, but it was an organic process. I come from graphic-design, not illustration. Good design is always simple - it stands out against the visual noise. T-shirts are a conversation starter. You design T-shirts because they are transient, but I've probably spent a year of my life talking to people about my shirts.''

Zammit: ''I love that they've constantly put Mel Burn in different type styles and they've been consistent to that cause. Which is great, because Melbourne has become such a great city.''

Merda - Galaxy/Renegade et al: ''It was a great personal statement,'' Merda says. ''Back then, if you were going out clubbing you'd print a design before you went; usually my tag, Merda. It was about making it and seeing it printed. I lost the passion for T-shirts when it became about commerce. Brands kept looking the same. It was about designing for money whereas, previously, it was about designing for passion.'' After doing hundreds of designs he quit in the 2000s. He now makes sculptures and draws. Last year he made a limited-edition print of his Warhol spray can.

Zammit: ''A giant of the wild style scene in the late '80s and one of most distinctive graffiti artists to come out of Australia. His T-shirts inspired me to see it as more than just a T-shirt.''

Bruce Slorach - Abyss/Galaxy/Funk Essentials: ''I went to art school and studied painting and printmaking and was attracted to the cliche of wearable art,'' Slorach says. ''Unfortunately Australia is such a cargo culture that it's lost that juice because it wanted to be so much part of something internationally. When you weren't able to connect so easily with the rest of the world, things were much more regional.''

Zammit: ''I loved the Funk Essentials pattern designs. They were fun. He was not afraid of experimenting.''

Tim Everist - Schwipe: ''I started it with Misha Glisovic as designer,'' Everist says. ''I'd come up with the slogan and Misha would design it. As a kid I was totally into Mambo. We just picked a weird theme and went nuts with it, like New World Order, Illuminati and conspiracy theories. There was a lot of crossover with the music scene. When bands like [Midnight] Juggernauts, the Presets and Cut Copy were getting big we did crazy kinds of ranges that were bright all-over prints. They were wearing all our stuff. Now I'm back to music T-shirts with SoundMerch.''

Zammit: ''They're one of the only labels in Australia that use slogan tees powerfully.''

Darren Till - Renegade/Tomorrow Never Knows: ''Seeing punk band JAB in Torquay and my brother's band the Ears were the things that influenced me,'' Till says. ''I'm not a musician but I found my way of doing something and am still doing it. I started in 1983-84. We became known for really loud prints, details, contrast rib, stitching sleeves. There were always a whole lot of influences. Now every footballer's got a label. I have artists come in offering to have their designs on consignment saying it will be a 'limited-edition' of 100. All T-shirts are limited editions. Sometimes I'd only do 30.''

Zammit: ''From a T-shirt perspective, the world needs more colour. He was not afraid of colour, or experimenting. He would weld plastic to T-shirts and come up with different fabrics and ideas.''

Misha Hollenbach - P.A.M.: ''T-shirt graphics are about being interested in art and fashion and conveying a message of fun and freedom and forward-thinking,'' Hollenbach says. ''T-shirts have done that from the '60s. Counterculture is the interest, though not specifically from the '60s. The Dadaists in the '20s and punks in the '70s and acid house in '90s, they are all talking about the same thing. We are just continuing an alternative way of thinking to the way society wants. Rave culture has remained the strongest influence on us. After 10 years of doing this, we've become part of an international community. We are the psychedelic court jesters from Australia who deliver a bit of colour.''

Zammit: ''If I'm travelling around the world, the name that keeps coming up from an independent credible perspective is P.A.M.''

TEES: Exposing Melbourne's T-shirt Culture, NGV Studio, Federation Square, December 7-February 17.