Madewell + James Ulmer: Redefining The Graphic Tee

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The graphic tee has never been more fun—courtesy of comic books, action figures and one bright Brooklyn artist.

Meet James Ulmer, New York–based artist, comic-book aficionado and collector of all things quirky. His studio is packed and plastered with street signs, vintage Cracker Jack boxes and toys. But it’s all organized chaos, with Herbie Hancock records playing and James sketching methodically in his go-to uniform: a brightly patterned button-down and an old pair of jeans. In short, we can relate. Now we’re putting two of his designs on our T-shirts, and we think they might just redefine the graphic tee, thanks to his playful but grown-up minimalism. That, and the fact that you can actually wear your art on your…well, shirt. During our visit to his studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, he explained his love for comic books, his sketching process and why dollar stores can be the best source of inspiration. But we’ll let him explain…

Madewell: So, art—always a part of your life? What’s your earliest memory?

James: I was drawing from a really young age. My grandmother liked to draw, so she was very encouraging. One of my first memories is drawing at the kitchen table at her house. I wanted to be a comic-book artist when I got older. I was drawn to the repetition of it. I try to do that with my work now, in a way.

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The two James Ulmer designs we printed on our shirts were part of a series of six works. One of the original canvases hangs in New York, while the other is in the Hamptons. Says James, “I don’t mind them being split up.”

MW: What’s the James Ulmer signature style these days?

James: Very graphic, simple and fun—a lot like the cells of a comic book. I like that images and graphic signs can communicate an idea without too much language, whether that be a sign on the back of a truck or a school crossing sign. With the grid system that I learned from comic books, I’m able to make these loose, figurative characters but still present them within a controlled composition.

MW: So that’s how you manage to keep order in a messy world. Which brings us to your studio.

James: It’s cluttered with stuff, mostly things I find at dollar stores. I like weird, bootleg versions of other things. Then I bootleg the bootleg.

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James creates small sketches on paper, combining elements of several into one. “When I’m happy with the sketch, then I’ll pick up a paintbrush,” he says.

MW: An abstract question—what do you think about the idea of wearing your art versus hanging it at home?

JU: I think it’s cool. Once something turns into clothing, it doesn’t belong to me. I don’t know if people will react to it in the same way they would react to a painting. But ultimately, I think that’s a good thing.

Shop our Madewell x James Ulmer tees.

Photography by Jennifer Trahan.