How Online Ceramics Captured the Gleeful Nihilism of 2020
Photo credit: Online Ceramics From Esquire There is something about a T-shirt reminding you that
There is something about a T-shirt reminding you that ‘We’re All Going To Die’ that feels so awkward, so like a nervous laugh or a shudder passing over your skin. It also feels perfectly entwined with a year in which death suddenly appeared much closer.
In October, Los Angeles brand Online Ceramics printed the phrase onto one of their t-shirts, the words cheerfully bobbing above a heart emoji-framed planet earth like a cross-stitch of a deeply weird year. The Instagram post announcing the new release quickly became a meme encompassing life during the pandemic, but the idea for the slogan had actually been around long before the world went into various quarantines, lockdowns and tiers. “We were about to release it and then the pandemic hit and we knew we couldn’t do it right now,” says Elijah Funk, co-creator of Online Ceramics, alongside Alix Ross. “As time has moved on it feels appropriate, because it’s not actually about the pandemic, it’s about existence throughout your daily life”.
Online Ceramics make twisted t-shirts and jumpers inspired by Grateful Dead iconography; a mixture of existential dread, druggy motifs and trippy California mysticism. There are skeletons propped up in a bath of blood inviting you to get in, snarling witches balancing on grumpy pumpkins, and a cauldron bubbling away with a guitar inside it. There are sweeter sentiments, too, like a lilac t-shirt with a teddybear on which reads: ‘If you are still searching for that one person who could change your life, look in the mirror’. Online Ceramics’s style is both distinctive and indiscriminate, trying to, as Funk says, “maintain a certain level of cleverness or humour or extremity to it that catapults it into a different direction”.
“A graphic t-shirt is a political statement,” says Ross, “I get excited about putting something on it that can shift someone’s way of thinking for maybe like a minute. I think that’s why people like our shirts, because they are guiding you or have these messages that are positive or just weird.”
Funk and Ross are speaking to Esquire over Zoom, at home in LA, in front of a painting of Michael Myers from Halloween, and on a farm in Oregon with patchy WiFi, respectively. The duo met in college while studying fine art and several years later started the brand as a way to fund going to see The Grateful Dead, the band which they call themselves “disciples” of.
The duo would drive a van to concerts and set up shop in The Lot, eventually themselves becoming an attraction for fans to flock to. In 2017, as the band were having huge resurgence after John Mayer joined Dead & Co., and with releases to mark their fiftieth anniversary, Online Ceramics designed a hoodie for their fall tour which Mayer wore on stage. Since then their fanbase has grown beyond diehard Deadheads to become the outfitters of Downtown LA hipsters, clothing the likes of Jonah Hill from their Lincoln Heights studio.
Their clothes have been spotted on celebrities including Virgil Abloh, Emily Ratajkowski and Bella Hadid, and the brand has collaborated with cult studio A24 on merch for horror films like Midsommar and The Witch. All of which is to say they occupy the rarefied space of very cool brands, all while selling t-shirts which look a little bit like something your whacky aunt brought home from Sante Fe. “Online Ceramics on paper doesn’t really make sense,” says Funk of their success. “To us it’s like our own sense of humour and interests.”
Some of their slogans mirror the detached death-wishes coursing through the Internet, or else they display a kind of radical sincerity and earnestness which feels at odds with an age of rampant cynicism. Alongside motifs of dancing skeletons and grinning witches, many of their items come in gnarly tie-dye washes which emulate the band tees of the Seventies. The off-kilter aesthetic even extends to their intentionally ugly website, where clothing drops at random after being announced on Instagram.
Tie-dye is enjoying a resurgence in fashion as brands try to emulate the counter-culture style of the Sixties, a trend which Online Ceramics were at the forefront of starting up again, but don’t seem too bothered about taking credit for. “We started tie-dying shirts first and foremost because we kept getting the white shirts dirty,” says Ross. “We would tie dye them so we could charge people 30 bucks and not feel bad about it.”
2020 has been a strange year for Online Ceramics, one which has seen the personality of the brand align with the mood of the moment, yet also come with a new set of challenges. “I remember around the time of George Floyd’s death it got really difficult to know what to say,” Ross says. “We didn’t have a Dead tour this year and had to figure out how to adapt to this new way of working.”
At a time when people were reflecting and trying to maintain a sense of community, Online Ceramics didn’t want to make clothing which felt at all divisive or alienating. “For a while in streetwear it was very ‘you can’t sit here’ t-shirts”, says Funk. “I just don’t think there’s space for that now. That’s happening inherently through divisive politics in America, and we don’t need any more camps of aggression.”
That friendly sentiment exists even in the t-shirt reminding us of our own mortality, as if you look close enough the only word underlined is ‘all’, underscoring the idea that we’re all in this extreme experience together, for better or worse.
“I don’t think that messaging is at all intense,” says Funk of the idea we’re all going to die. “It’s super important to remember how lucky every day is. Out of context it seems really alarmist and hardcore, but it’s really a sweet sentiment to me.”
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