On vacation with his family as a kid, Tom Burns bought a souvenir that he laughs about now: it was a graphic T-shirt with a picture of his 10-year-old face on the ripped body of Conan the Barbarian. His sense of humour still plays a major role in the designs he illustrates as a T-shirt designer today. Take his best seller for example, “The Communist Party”, where an illustrated Fidel Castro drinks, presumably keg beer, from red plastic party cups with Stalin, Lenin and Chairman Mao while Karl Marx rocks out with a lampshade on his head. “I think the humor is a big part of [why it’s successful],” Tom says. “Adding humor to an otherwise very un-humorous set of historical figures.”
Tom lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri but his first real “art job”, as he calls it, was working as a graphic artist at a screen-printing shop in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 2001. It’s where he got his start designing for T-shirts, learning what works and what doesn’t, and learning the craft of screen-printing in the process. It was a few years later though when he discovered threadless.com that he was inspired to design the kind of T-shirts that he wanted to wear himself. “I was hooked after that,” he says. T-shirt design is a kind of calling for him; injecting a bit of creativity and fun into people’s daily lives. “It's a really cool canvas for everyday art,” he says. “You touch it and feel it, and proudly wear designs on shirts, and I think that says something about who you are as a person; like what you would wear on your chest and display to the world.”
Humorous T-shirts are the original memes. The joke has to be communicated quickly or it fails but it can’t be too obvious either, the punchline should be rewarding, delivered after an ‘ah-ha!’. The best designs make you feel like you’re an insider, part of the club who ‘gets it’. With his popular T-shirt designs, Tom gets the balance just right. He’s been known to use visual puns — apple pi anyone? — and pop cultural references. His favourite T-shirt design is “8 bit Shining”, an image that reimagines characters from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” as arcade game avatars rendered in a classic 8 bit style. It’s a concept he’s extended for Pulp Fiction, Breaking Bad and The Big Lebowski.
More recently Tom has been inspired by hand-painted vintage movie posters which he remixes with an unexpected twist using collage. With clever cutting and pasting, he unravels a tiger’s head MC Escher-style to reveal a blue 1950s woman inside with big yellow eyes. In another design, the chiselled face of a man from the same era is split in two to reveal a solid meat interior.
From 8 bit to collage to flat 2D vector, Tom’s versatility is one of the first things you notice about his illustration style. This means his process varies depending on the design he’s working on. “Most of the time though, I will sketch, or sketch over pictures, before I vector it all out,” he says. “I use Illustrator and Photoshop primarily, but I do sketch some stuff on my iPad in the Procreate app.”
While his ability to work fluidly between styles keeps us guessing what he’ll take on next, his advice to younger designers takes a different tone. “Find something you like to draw and draw a lot of it,” he says. “If you want to focus on illustration, try to develop a style of your own to set you apart from the rest. I never really honed in on one specific style myself, but all the artists I love and admire usually do have their own.”
“Also,” he adds, most importantly, “just have fun.”
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