Hidden away off a busy street in Clerkenwell, London is a subterranean print shop called T-Shirt Dave, one of the last remaining manual screen printers in what was once the beating heart of the capital’s print industry. Images visited its owner, Dave Brett to talk psychedelic art, Simon Cowell and rude tees at Glastonbury
Clerkenwell, an uber-cool part of London that’s crowded with media and design companies and boasts the highest concentration of architects in the world, is an area that has changed hugely over the past 20 years. The jewellery shops still pack out Hatton Gardens, scene of last year’s audacious jewellery heist by OAPs, but the litho printers, type-setters and screen printers that used to call this area their own have moved on in the face of an increasingly digital world. Or most of them, anyway.
Happily, Dave Brett, of T-shirt Dave, is still screen printing spectacularly coloured posters and T-shirts in the basement of his brother’s gallery, Bamalama Posters, on Leather Lane. The gallery itself is an early indication of what to expect downstairs in Dave’s workspace: currently hosting a punk exhibition, there are five authentic punk T-shirts strung across the room and beautifully coloured posters covering the walls. Given many of the garments from the punk era unsurprisingly failed to survive beyond the 70s, the T-shirts, all owned either by Dave or his brother John, form an impressive spectacle.
Dave, a 52-year-old from Hackney in east London, quickly points out various items. There’s a poster he printed from a picture by 60s psychedelic artist Nigel Waymouth and a poster by Ben Eine, the artist who has worked with Banksy and created the picture David and Samantha Cameron gave to Barack Obama: “He’s at Glastonbury at the moment, painting a wall. I’m printing some T-shirts that he’s designed for the Big Issue to be sold at Glastonbury next week,” Dave reports.
The tour continues downstairs with some skulls on a delicate fabric: “Here’s some material I’ve printed for Jo Wood, Ronnie Wood’s (of The Rolling Stones) ex-wife: she used these for cushions.” A lot of what Dave prints is used by charities for celebrities to wear, such as the Save the Children T-shirts worn by models Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell and media mogul Simon Cowell, although for Simon the crew-neck, all-over printed T-shirt was swapped for a one-off, more ‘Simonesque’ V-neck tee.
The stories keep coming and make you want to pull up a chair and listen to Dave for hours, although this is impossible: he likes to work hard and party hard, he says, and with the Glastonbury festival taking place only a few days after Images’ visit this is the time for serious amounts hard work. As he has done for many years he’ll be selling T-shirts at the festival, although sadly this year the most gratuitously rude yet hilarious of his designs won’t be on sale. It’s the festival-goers’ loss, although he has plans to replace it with something less obviously profane, but still easily capable of raising eyebrows.
Even if Dave had time to stop for a chat, finding a chair to perch on for more than two seconds without being moved is an impossibility – every inch of the space is already being used, and then some. The six-colour manual Hopkins carousel dominates the print shop, with brightly coloured screens still in place from a job Dave was printing for frozen yoghurt company Snog. Dave says of the Hopkins press: “Unfortunately it’s all in imperial measurements so if I want any parts I have to get them from America, but it’s the best carousel.”
Orders range from one-offs to 500 pieces and Dave rarely prints longer run lengths as beyond 500 he feels his manual set-up is no longer competitive. He also has a large screen print table for posters and textiles. The most colours he has printed on a single design was 77 for The Alphabet print by Ben Eine for a Guinness Book of Records attempt. The Number poster currently on his wall was made using 36 colours.
There are piles of boxes, masses of red T-shirts for the Big Issue order, and open pots of ink on the floor. A tiny room to the side contains a computer and at least three guitars, while in the main room a dartboard hangs above the exposure unit – “I used to play a lot of darts,” he calls out from another room where he’s washing out a screen – and an amp can just be seen under some paper. The back of the door is hung with tools… and a corkscrew.
Compared to the modern sheds found on industrial estates and equipped with high tech machinery, Dave’s place is defiantly old-school and packed full of character. Back when he moved into this space, this part of London boasted a lot more character too. But times change: the street market outside the gallery where smart, young office workers peruse the many food stalls used to be a proper market, explains Dave; looking around now it’s all about the latest artisan food, at artisan prices. Rents here have rocketed up to around £100 per square metre, Dave adds, pushing the skilled craftspeople out of the area.
Dave fell into screen printing by accident. A mate asked him to come with him to see a T-shirt carousel. Dave had no idea what a T-shirt carousel was, yet both he and his mate ended up buying one. He learned a bit about the trade from a couple of friends, but is largely self-taught. He joined a screen printing company in Islington but left with his then girlfriend Mandy, now his partner of 23 years, to set up their own business.
Dave’s client list stretches from advertising agencies to charities and from world-renowned artists to local businesses. His traditional approach clearly appeals to a wide audience as, presumably, does his passion for screen printing and getting the perfect result. Digital is never going to be a choice for T-Shirt Dave – it’s the creativity and vibrancy of screen printing that appeals to him.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t moved with the times. His first website in 2003 was featured in The Creative Review Annual no less. “There were a lot of Daves at the pub so I became T-Shirt Dave. These two really nice lads liked the name and offered to make me a website,” he explains. It was innovative and fun at a time when many printing companies hadn’t even thought of having a website. He does, however, get most of his work via word of mouth and seems to know a huge number of people. He remembers when Continental Clothing started from a stall in Camden Market, and he was one of the first people to use American Apparel when the brand arrived in the UK.
Sadly, he cannot envisage running his business from the basement on Leather Lane for much longer. However, if he does move his business to another, less expensive part of London – and it’s hard to imagine he will make the move despite what he says – the area will have lost another craftsman and an irreplaceable character.