Visual Verve

Tankfarm Clothing strikes it rich with clever graphics

Photo by Theo DouglasThe guys at Tankfarm Clothing Co. in Cypress have a message for the board-sports industry: They just don't care.

"We don't care about the surf-skate crowd. Our people are the musicians," says Tankfarm co-founder John Anderson, the John Anderson who designed what is currently Nordstrom's best-selling T-shirt: a smiley-faced skull-and-crossbones with a gold tooth. Tomorrow's CEO—today—because he figured out what's only now apparent: You don't have to niche market to skaters or surfers. Everyone wears T-shirts.

You should be reading about Tankfarm in two or three years, but sometimes people get lucky and strike gold or oil or T-shirt sales and time speeds up. So it is with Tankfarm. In 2002, it was Tankfarm Records, a label started by three brothers—John, Mike and Ricky Anderson—in a promising local band called Nice (pronounced like the town in France). They formed a record label to promote themselves and other bands; they sold CDs at local gigs; and—as bands do—they made T-shirts with their logo.

And the T-shirts started selling. A lot. And they took the hint. That's basically it.

"John called me up, and he was like, 'Hey, let's make a few more of those Tankfarm T-shirts,'" says Mike, the graphic-design major who does the marketing-type tasks (the graphics are usually John's). And so it went: They stopped doing the band, they made more T-shirts and eventually quit their day jobs.

Their first T-shirts used just a basic graphic, but they were in a military-esque olive drab—in 2001-2002, big news. The whole neo-military thing was primed to take off; and then, after that, came the whole babydoll, girly T-shirt thing—and Tankfarm was set.

Fast forward to now, and where are they? Riding the next big wave: the whole neo-preppy, fitted-clothing vibe that was all over ASR last week. Obsessing over argyles: tiny diamonds formed—instead of just by straight lines—by teeny formations of marching ants. The Andersons come from a family of printers—they're actually in business next door to their dad's print shop, and so they do their own T-shirt tests, where they discover the ants have to have just the right amount of ink or else you can't see 'em.

Their shirts—and now fitted jeans and faded, frayed L.A. Gear-esque jackets for ladies—are full of this kind of intelligent detail that warrants a second look. On one wall of their workroom hangs a graphic of two snakes having a tête-à-tête, the negative space around their bodies forming the shape of a heart. Elsewhere in the Tankfarm complex (named for the tank farm they rode their bikes to in Cypress years ago) hangs another graphic borrowing from the World War II warning that "loose lips sink ships." They've updated it with a graphic of a slanted battleship—sinking, obviously—its upper half morphed into a pair of lips.

Maybe this is what drives their success—actual visual oomph—and not just that members of Green Day, Velvet Revolver and Modest Mouse wear their shirts, or that they're all over Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters. What a novel idea.

TANKFARM CLOTHING CO. MAY BE FOUND AT 10544 PROGRESS WAY, CYPRESS, (714) 252-1125 OR AT WWW.TANKFARMCLOTHING.COM

 
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