I (heart) NY. Everyone knows what I’m referring to and its not just a rip off of pop art genius (and fellow Hoosier), Robert Indiana. Its not necessarily the best tee, but its definitely the most recognizable. Its the Mona Lisa of tee shirts. Its the official garment of NYC (even though no one there wears them). But, what is so special about it is that it effectively communicates universally and in an iconic American visual language that transcends its stuffy high art influences.
The tee is the go to New York memento. It serves as a conversation starter, a souvenir and often, bragging rights for those who bring one back from to their small towns in the Mid-West. What differentiates the tee shirt from another souvenir is the direction of the projection of its sentiment and the generalization of those elicited thoughts. A souvenir, which is tied to an idiosyncratic thought, is thus rendered ineffective in communicating to someone not sharing that experience. The tee, in general, is contradictory to the general nature of a souvenir as it is used to tell everyone else something.
If one sees the I (heart) NY shirt, what comes to mind (assuming that person has never resided in NYC)? Yellow taxis. The Statue of Liberty. 9/11. Crappy slices of pizza. People yelling at each other on the street. Seinfeld episodes. It projects the generalized outsider vision of New York, a perception not tied to any specific event, personality or object. And it does this better than any other visual stimuli. Its right up there with the crucifix, the swastika and the golden arches.
Once, while in NYC visiting galleries and museums, I attempted to keep track of how many places I saw selling this shirt from my vantage walking on the street. I lost track (not enough fingers and toes). But I specifically remember one place that sold them 4 for $5. Save your money, anyone can buy one of the most pervasive and potent pictures ever created in America for $1.25 off a card table in Chelsea, which is across the street from a gallery that sells paintings by little know artists for $10k a pop. The I (heart) NY shirt is equally as important, aesthetically effective and socially relevant as a painting in a museum could hope to be, but unlike those paintings, you can have one (or 4 for $5).