Hip Tees

‘Shirt Kings’ Book Looks Back at Hip Hop Fashion

A new book celebrates the graffiti-inspired T-shirt business that helped define 1980s hip hop fashion.

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Streetwear brands like Supreme and OBEY take their influence from graffiti – but they may owe their success to the three men who started the trend. Edwin “Phade” Sacasa, Rafael “Kasheme” Avery, and Clyde “Nike” Harewood, alums of Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design, transformed the world of hip hop fashion in the 1980s when they began applying the colorful street artistry they scribbled on trains and building walls to T-shirts and sweaters. The group came to known as “The Shirt Kings,” after Sacasa’s graffiti tag “King Phade.” Operating out of the famous Coliseum Mall in Jamaica, Queens, the trio created customized designs inscribed with nicknames, brand names, caricatures, and cartoon characters—but not your average ones (think: Roger Rabbit firing an Uzi). Their shop was frequented by rap legends including Jam Master Jay, RZA, and Jay-Z, all of who equated the Shirt King’s style with style of the street. Shirt Kings, in stores on Monday, co-authored by Sacasa and artist Alan KET, offers a look back at the group’s work and its influence on the fashion of the time.

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Big Daddy Kane, Jamaica Coliseum, 1987

In this photograph, taken at The Shirt King’s store in the Coliseum Mall, Antonio Hardy, better known as rapper Big Daddy Kane, displays his custom T, which features a cartoon fox, clad in silver jewelry and clutching a bedazzled microphone, pointing at a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800 malt liquor.

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Half Note, Jamaica Coliseum, 1987

The Shirt Kings were known to put anything on a T-shirt, including brands like Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. Here, Half Note holds a design emblazoned with Polo Ralph Lauren’s logo. “These multi-million dollar brands wouldn’t be in our community if it wasn’t for brothers like the Shirt Kings,” rapper Nas writes in the book. “If Polo wasn’t doing the right thing, if they didn’t fit right, if the design was a little bit off, Shirt Kings would do your shirt over, put your Polo on there and make it right!”

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Edwin PHADE Sacasa, Gizmo, and Milk, Latin Quarters, 1987

Sacasa shows off one of his designs—a monkey donning oversized glasses and a gold chain—at the historic New York nightclub Latin Quarters. Also an alum of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the former graffiti artist was nicknamed “King Phade” for being the best at his craft.

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Prince Messiah, Jamaica Coliseum, 1987

The Shirt Kings’ airbrushed designs fused animated characters with the culture of the street. In this photo, Prince Messiah displays a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse wearing a gold chain and smoking a crack pipe. Two skulls emerge from the billows of smoke coming from the pipe, and the shirt reads, “Hey kids, leave that crack alone.”

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Tasja from South Side Jamaica, Queens, 1986

A local Queens customer poses with her daughter in clothing by Harlem designer Dapper Dan and Shirt Kings.

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

Kool DJ Red Alert, 1989

Fred Crute, a.k.a. Kool DJ Red Alert, clutches two Shirt Kings designs: one of a cartoon character swinging on a vine over a bikini-clad woman, and another of a certain “Big Jim” arising from a box labeled “Jim in the Box.”

Edwin "PHADE" Sacasa

King Kasheme, Mighty Nike, and Funky Phade, Jamaica Coliseum, 1987

The Mighty Shirt Kings pose with their own custom shirt at their shop in the Jamaica Coliseum. The three artists are pictured wearing blinged-out jewelry and are labeled by their nicknames: King Kasheme, Mighty Nike, and Funky Phade.