David Murray is the man behind Seibei, an awesome, quirky and extremely unique brand that has gained a large fan base for good reason! David, a self-taught illustrator with a college degree in Japanese Literature, began the brand in 2004 by screen printing and designing his tees, but it was in 2006 when Seibei really took off. One of the things I love about Seibei (and there are a lot) is that the tees are both amazing artistic designs and they’re funny. Most of the time when I see a tee that is funny, it usually isn’t aesthetically pleasing. This is absolutely not the case with Seibei tees, which is one of the many reasons this brand stands out and has had so much success.
Be sure to visit http://www.seibei.com and pick up a tee. Also definitely follow David’s blog! It’s by far one of my favorite blogs out there.
Now onto the interview…
1. What’s the story behind Seibei? When did you start the brand?
SEIBEI has its roots in my time at university as a Japanese major. In my third year, my advisor had us read a story by Shiga Naoya entitled Seibei to hyoutan (“Seibei and his gourds”). The story was about a young artist named Seibei who was kind of a weirdo, bucked trends of the day, and was dedicated to his work to the distraction of everything else. This story really stuck with me, so eventually I decided that if I ever found work as an artist, I’d want to work under this name. When I got back from Japan (where I spent my last year of school), a friend and I were goofing around with fabric paints one night and I made my first commercial shirt ever, a shirt making a joke about a friend of ours. I wore it out and the reaction was huge. It was then that I realized that I could start putting all of my dumb jokes and cartoons onto t-shirts, so I taught myself how to screen print and got cracking (learning to screen print was actually a pretty long and involved process, and by the time I really became a good printer, I quit my day job and had to start hiring out my printing). My early work was mostly in jokes with friends and definitely had more of a “goofy image and accompanying joke” Busted Tees feel (they’re good people – that’s just not what I want out of my work anymore). This was in 2004. I’d say I didn’t really begin things in earnest until 2006, though. Up until March 2009 I was holding down a full time job at a print shop and printing my own work and running SEIBEI and not sleeping much.
2. I read that you run Seibei full time. What has that been like? What is an average day like for you at Seibei headquarters?
I’m working on creating a more structured schedule these days, but basically every day starts with checking email, reading a few industry blogs, reading Achewood, checking Twitter, and processing and shipping orders. My afternoons rotate between working on side projects (trying to get a zine and a book together, figure sculpting, other stuff), working on new designs (I draw a good deal every day, but don’t actually work in Illustrator terribly often, which I’m trying to change), making Zombie Hunter shirts, and gearing up for shows. I go to the gym and take Jeet Kune Do so I at least don’t get any fatter, and I spend a good deal of time hanging out with my girlfriend (when she’s not in class at the Culinary Institute of America) and other friends. I usually sketch whenever I’m watching tv or sitting around.
3. I saw on your blog that you had a booth at Renegade Craft Fair and All Points West. How was that? Do you plan on selling at any other festivals?
Selling at festivals is the best – Renegade Craft Fair is one of the biggest reasons I’m able to do this full time, and I’ve been down with them for years. If you already have a quality product it’s important to get it in front of as many people as possible, and now that I’m doing this full time, I’ve become a bit of a shut in, so it’s important to actually see people and get enough sunlight to avoid rickets. I’m trying to do as many festivals and shows as I can from here on out – there’s nothing like getting to see people’s reactions in person, and it’s hell of rewarding to meet the people who are buying your shirts and supporting your work. Also, it’s great to meet other artists who are out there hustlin’ and right there in the trenches with you. Shows are one of the most fun and rewarding parts of this gig.
4. What has been the best business decision you’ve ever made?
Right before I moved to New York in 2007, I had done this really shitty little craft show in Virginia. It was put on by a local Craft Mafia, and they hyped it like none other, and I was really stoked for it, and it was a complete failure. I had even bought an ad in the program (last time I ever did that), and it was just dead. The few people that were there were not stoked at all, and my work got a lot of eye rolls (which I was already no stranger to). I had just been accepted to my first ever Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn, and failing so hard at this show had made me super depressed, and I considered dropping out of the show because I had just moved and was strapped for cash. Fortunately, I decided to do the show (my girlfriend probably gave me a good pep talk), and it was a BLOW OUT. I met tons of great people, outsold most of the people who’d been doing it for years, and it really helped me feel like I could make it as an artist. I remember driving over the Triboro Bridge heading home from the show, watching the sun set, and just feeling like I could conquer the world. So, I guess the lesson from this is hard work and perserverance. Just keep swimming!
5. What has been the worst business decision (if any) you’ve ever made? Or is there anything you’ve done with Seibei that you regret?
Nothing I’m ashamed of, but nothing really worth talking too much about, either. I’ve overestimated how popular some designs would be (who DOESN’T like a drawing of a muscley kid with a veiny donut head jumping rope?) and ended up putting 95% of a print run into the “bargain bin” once or twice, and I’ve shipped tons of product to shows that end up getting rained out, and there was that time I had my cash box stolen. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled “fuck” more loudly or with more sincerity, but, it happens. I think one of the reasons I’m still here is because I’m good at rolling with the punches. No one became a success by being a wuss. This is a business for tough mutants.
6. What is your next line going to be like/what do you have planned?
I have some new releases planned for Renegade Chicago, but to be honest, I just ran out of time to get everything ready for it, so some of them are going to be delayed. That said, Greg Abbott and I have done a piece together that I think could be the best SEIBEI tee yet, my buddy Jayna Fey and I are cooking up something, and soon enough I’ll be doing a piece with my bros for life, the Two Rabbits. I’ve also gotten in to resin casting, so soon I’m going to premiere a series of limited edition, hand painted figurines made by yours truly. I’m hoping to have some to sell or give away at Renegade Chicago, but I can’t make any promises. There’s a hell of a learning curve, and I don’t like to sell or give away something unless I’m completely happy with it.
7. What has been your most popular tee to date?
The Sandwich Dinosaur, without question, though the Intramural Zombie Hunter and a few others have been nipping at its heels for some time. Around Halloween and Christmas I usually pull a few all-nighters a week making Zombie Hunter shirts, and I still fall behind. Something about the Sandwich Dinosaur really speaks to people – it’s like an ancient totem or a Jungian archetype or something. I literally spent ten minutes drawing it directly into a screen with screen filler and drawing fluid to test a press I’d built years ago, to wear as a goof at a kebab shop where I made sandwiches.
8. What do you think makes Seibei different from other brands?
Earlier this year I actually met a woman who ALSO had a degree in Japanese Literature, and ALSO ran her own t-shirt line, so I guess it’s not that. What I’m trying to do with SEIBEI, in addition to having fun and expressing myself as an artist, is unite the weirdos and the spazzes of the world – I think you have to be able to laugh at yourself at least a little bit and be a little different to wear a shirt with a dinosaur saying MAKE ME A SANDWICH, much less my other works. I was recently thinking about Johnny Cash’s concept of the Man In Black – someone who wears clothing of a somber tone to remind us of all of those who suffer and are less fortunate. I think we need a Man In Bright (for lack of a better gender neutral term that encompasses fun colors) – someone who wears goofy clothing to help us to keep a smile on our faces, even in dark times. The world is full of hate and suffering, but it is also full of love and magic and dinosaurs. I want to make people happy by helping to remind them of this. On that tip, I’ve been wanting to get into more charitable donation, but haven’t found a good outlet for it.
9. Do you think the tee shirt market is oversaturated with too many brands doing the same thing?
Sure, but I’m not really concerned with it. I think there are a lot of brands who need to have their brand name on the shirt because that’s the only way you can tell what company produced it, but plenty of people like that and that’s fine (on the flip side, there are plenty of companies I love and respect who drop their brand name on every shirt they do). I don’t like a lot of brands out there mainly due to weird personal tastes, but who gives a shit? It’s a big world and there’s room for a lot of us. In the end, I have too much work to do to spend any time hating on other companies. Okay, to be fair, I probably multitask while hating on people – I just try to make sure I’m filling orders or something while cussing rampantly under my breath.
10. What do you think is necessary or key to having a successful clothing brand?
Having something unique to say and doing it well, and then backing that up with tireless dedication and hard work. Constantly try to improve and one up yourself. Try to provide a great experience for the customer, so they feel a personal connection with you and your brand. Also, having a coherent worldview and aesthetic is something I worry a lot about, personally.
11. Have you actively marketed Seibei? If so, which marketing tactics have worked and which haven’t?
Not really. I’ve had mixed results with print advertising, but I mostly rely on word of mouth. I have had really good success with banner ads…I really ought to do some of those again. I’ve also been wanting to try Google AdWords, but again, it’s one of those things not high up on my list of priorities. This may be a bit foolish on my part, but I’m a big believer in a “if you build it, they will come” sort of business philosophy. I just try to focus my efforts on making a good product and making my customers happy so, ideally, they’ll do the advertising work for me.
12. Where would you like Seibei to be in 5 years?
Eventually, I want to have a small retail space with an attached art gallery. I’ve made so many good friends through working as SEIBEI who are far more talented than I am, so I’d love to start curating shows just as an excuse to get to hang out and work with them. I’m also starting to look into a wider range of products – cut and sew pieces, resin toys, skate decks – and I just want to keep creating new things. I don’t think I’ll ever be a millionaire; I just want to keep having fun with this. It’s great to know that people all over the world are wearing my work and that it makes them happy.