Alex Gibson is the brainchild behind Bad Smelling Boy, a tumblr made up of images of basic t-shirts and sweatshirts printed with photographs and digital design elements. But these shirts aren’t actually printed. In fact, they don’t exist, except for on the screen. Gibson takes images—some found, but most are his own photographs and artwork—and superimposes them onto images of upper-body sportswear, folds and all. The shirt frames the image, causing it to be considered in a new way, different than if you’d come across it on paper or alone on the screen. His trompe l’oeil designs also inspire consumer desire. Bad Smelling Boy’s comments roll is full of the same three questions: Where can I buy this…? What store did you get these images from? Do you ship to…? Alex is working on it, with a couple upcoming t-shirt collaborations (watch out on netstyl.es) and has aspirations to create a whole line.
Gibson makes me feel old. There are just four years between us, but it’s as if we’re from different generations. Though the cut-off dates are debatable, his generation (Gibson just became legal drinking age) has been called Gen Z, Gen Text, and Gen Internet, whereas I’m of Gen Y, Next, or Net. Growing up with dial-up, at the very least, having seen only the second heyday of Apple Inc., and experiencing both MySpace and Facebook through teenagedom, these kids are like fish in world wide water. Alex is as adept in Photoshop as he is in acrylics and oils. He makes references to memes I pretend to get, and he thinks tumblr might already be over.
Gibson is currently finishing up his junior year at Cooper Union in New York, where he studies general Fine Arts. He does not, for the record, smell bad. He is poised in a masculine way, with the kind of build that surprises in its stature. He speaks thoughtfully, with long pauses instead of filler vocals. I met the baby genius in person not long ago at his cluttered Cooper studio. There, we chatted about Bad Smelling Boy and how exciting it is to be “our age” in the world right now.
How long have you been running Bad Smelling Boy?
I started around the middle of February last year. So a little over a year.
Tell me about the concept. You’ve got these garments and you’re filling them with images. Are they images of your own creation?
It was found images for a long time, but after awhile I started only using my own photography. All of the straight photo single images are mine.
Why t-shirts and sweatshirts? Did you want to look at the images in a different way or did you have an idea of these being a commercially viable product?
I think it’s a little bit of both because, on the one hand, they’re flat images. They’re single frames. They’re not rectangles but they are single images. And they’re illusory in the sense that they’re not templates for sweaters, they’re pictures of sweaters. You know, they have the folds, etc. On the other hand, I would really like to see a lot of them printed and I’m working on that front right now.
So this is an ambition of yours, to produce the shirts?
Yeah. And if I can’t produce them myself, I would love to design for another store. I don’t know if you know netstyl.es? It was started by Sterling Crispin and he is getting various internet/new media artists to do this all-over-print t-shirts. I’m doing one for him that’s going to be coming out in the next few weeks.
Do you see yourself as a fashion designer?
What I like about the t-shirt project is that it is in an in-between space. It’s not an “art project” but it’s also not strictly fashion. I don’t consider myself a person who wants to be a fashion designer. I think the Bad Smelling Boy project was great for me because it’s so open-ended. It’s not really art, it’s not really fashion. I think the internet’s such a great place for that. I mean this is such an exciting time to be, you know, our age in the world.
What do you mean?
I mean that we have access to a totally flat playing field—there is very little hierarchy on the internet, whether you’re a kid in your room at your parents’ house or the voice of a huge corporation. The success or failure of online content is basically democratic; despite material means, no one can really come in with an advantage over anyone else. The availability of pirated software, that most teenagers know how to acquire, is key to this equation. Not only can those teenagers get software they can’t afford, they can learn to use it better and faster than people born before the advent of digital technology. It is exactly the same as learning a spoken language—developing brains learn unfamiliar material faster and more fluidly. Kids who had MySpace in middle school learned basic html early, and now still understand the fundamentals of that language. It’s not that it can’t be learned later, but it is easier with the groundwork in place.
Are there any artists in particular you think are interesting?
I like Aaron Graham, Shawn C. Smith, Body by Body by Melissa Sachs. Cameron Soren was definitely an influence on my work.
What are you working on right now?
I’m about to launch a new project at g-i-b-s-o-n.com, that’s just coming together now. I’m working on some clothing that should be coming out in the fall, so I’m excited for that. Otherwise I’m in MA for the summer, just waiting on that apocalypse.