It’s a nice fantasy to think that people create strictly for a love of creating, but human nature dictates that we all want some level of success in our endeavours, whether that’s approval from our peers, financial gain, or any other such real-life pat on the back. For well over half of my life, I’ve amassed a large portfolio of published writing work, from awkward teen ‘zines to unnecessary Cancon interviews and blowhard opinion pieces. I’ve also played hundreds of shows and recorded a shit-ton of music in numerous bands. All of these efforts, however, were dwarfed by the most successful joke I’ve ever made.
Like most worthwhile projects, my Most Successful Joke grew out of boredom when I was working as a freelancer from home. Inspired by a local sound guy who I’d seen wearing a Tegan and Sara shirt with the Black Flag bars, I decided to use my best Photoshop skills and throw Justin Bieber’s name around the iconic punk image. Rather than download the actual font, I went to one of those font websites where you can sample new fonts, and took screenshots of the words “JUSTIN” and “BIEBER.” It was some true cut and paste ponx shit.
I posted the image on my rarely updated Tumblr on February 24, 2010. A few days later, I checked and the image had 100 notes, with some people saying “Would wear a shirt of this” or whatever. A few months went by, and my wife and I entertained the thought of picking up a silkscreening kit. Then, driven by our dwindling bank account, we finally pushed our overdraft to the limit and picked up some shitty screens, a lamp, and some ink.
Two ruined screens later and thirty-five desperately needed dollars down the drain, our makeshift basement studio was complete. We were the Walter and Skyler White of ironic punk t-shirts. We fumbled our way through printing two five-packs of Hanes t-shirts, thinking the crudely rendered image and plethora of ink blotches would at least make funny gifts for our friends. Then, for shits ‘n’ gigs, we decided to post them on Etsy. Revisiting my font sample site, I made a logo for the True Beliebers Etsy shop, and our Bieb Flag t-shirt was ready to meet the rest of the world.
Like all bullshit artists, I needed a bullshit artist statement for my bullshit artwork. Back then, Justin Bieber wasn’t the weed-smoking, Selena-cheating, security-guard-beating jaded superstar that he is today. He was a relatively new tween sensation, popping up on blogs for causing adolescent girls to riot in malls. Using that angle, along with the fact that Biebs got discovered via YouTube, I justified the juxtaposition with a simple statement: “Both have caused riots, both embrace DIY.”
We sort of thought we’d recoup our costs by selling a couple shirts to Etsy fanatics with bird tattoos and wooden earrings. Instead, the shirt quite literally became famous overnight. Hundreds of Tumblr reblogs inevitably led high-profile blogs like Buzzfeed to get in on the love (tagging it, fittingly, with “EW,” “LOL,” and “WTF” badges). What followed was an Internet snowball effect, with MTV, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, Boing Boing, The Daily Swarm, Current, KROQ, and countless others picking up on the trend. AUX contributor Mish Way interviewed me for Hearty before we were friends. Even the glörds at Metal Insider took a break from Metalocalypse to post it, calling it “The Worst T-Shirt Ever of The Week.”
I even got to do some radio and television press, driving to the CBC Radio office in my city to talk to the normie moms and dads who host the afternoon radio show. Here’s an interview I did on MuchMusic, speaking awkwardly with that dude who looks like an Underoath roadie (former VJ Devon Soltendieck). They even had to run a disclaimer for the kids, which read “BLACK FLAG WAS A SEMINAL 80S PUNK BAND.” (Uploaded by my dad, listen to my family talking before it starts:)
Within a couple of days, we had amassed a ludicrous amount of Etsy orders, more than our tiny, bullshit silkscreen set-up was intended for. A few sleepless nights and plumbers to unclog our ink-filled sinks, and we had shipped Bieb Flag t-shirts all over the world. We’d also treated our PayPal to a small fortune, making enough room on our credit cards for our band to release a 7-inch, buy a new guitar, and go on tour.
Using our DIY joke art to finance other DIY projects wasn’t exactly a punk dream for everyone, however. The people who made the Tegan and Sara shirt, along with the person who made the Lady Gaga one and the Seinfeld one and the Beach Boys one, were all pissed about our fun little project. They made sure to visit each and every one of those sites to make sure that everyone knew that the idea was theirs first. TELL THAT TO RAYMOND PETTIBON, YOU GUYS.
Then, there were the expected “WTF THAT’S NOT PUNK” people. You know the type — they probably first heard of Black Flag in that one Tony Hawk game, pirated a copy of the American Hardcore movie, and developed an opinion on what is and isn’t punk. They’ve never been to an actual hardcore show, call records “vinyls,” and arguably don’t even know who Greg Ginn is. They made a noble effort to add comments everywhere asking what Henry Rollins would do if he heard about this atrocity. My guess is that he’s probably too busy sitting by his phone, hoping to get the call for another Jack Frost movie.
If you’d like to read more from the great “punk/not punk” debate, let me point you towards this wonderful Yahoo Answers conversation about my shirt. The asker offers this remarkable gem of a question:
Then there’s this answer, from user Jaedon:
That’s not my favourite conversation about the Bieb Flag shirt, however. That comes courtesy of a true ponx 14-year-old from Arizona, who contacted me on Facebook to tell me about how much he wanted to kick my ass. Through a series of lies and half-truths, I was able to convince him that Justin Bieber was actually more punk than Black Flag. In my decade-plus writing career, this is the best interview I’ve ever done, unedited for your enjoyment:
Arizona kid: hey are you the one who makes the justin bieber black flag shirts??
Josiah Hughes hey dude
yeah that’s me!
are you interested in ordering?
Arizona kid: im interested in kicking your ass.
to me it seems your calling black flag a pop sensation.
Josiah Hughes: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Arizona kid: i dont understand.
your comparing one of the edgiest hardcore bands of american rock history with a teenage pop sellout.
Josiah Hughes: but dude, they’re the same thing! THINK ABOUT IT!
Arizona kid: elaborate.
Josiah Hughes: dude no matter what you think, black flag was NOT punk. ian mackaye wrote all of their songs for them, and in the later years henry rollins was even caught lip syncing. look it up bro. fuck black flag, they may as well be the jonas brothers. justin bieber did it himself, he got big on youtube.
Arizona kid: ian mckayes work with minor threat was not half as good as black flag. greg ginn wrote most of blackflags music. black flag is not well known. theyre point was not to get famous like, say, darby crash.
Josiah Hughes: it’s true that black flag is not well known, but that’s why they are no longer a band. the plan was to get huge, and it didn’t work out so they fizzled out. ian mackaye wrote all of henry rollins’ lyrics. it’s true that greg ginn wrote all the music. when they broke up, greg ginn also wrote all of the music and lyrics to nirvana’s Nevermind, Green Day’s Dookie and even some of the hits from Soundgarden. they wanted to get famous sooo bad. look it up man.
Arizona kid: dude thats like saying the moon landing was real. you belive too much hype. black flag could have never been big. america doesnt apreeciate anger. it appreciates justin bieber.
Josiah Hughes: funny you mention the moon landing. there is evidence to indicate that the CIA were involved with the 80s hardcore movement. there was an excess of rubber and canvas, and they had to convince the youth of america to purchase doc marten boots and vans shoes, so they worked with Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn to convince the youth to embrace that style of music. they came up with the hardcore movement. Henry Rollins dad was actually a CIA operative. i feel bad for sheeple like you.
Arizona kid: give me the cult’s web adress of where your getting this information.
Josiah Hughes: are you being serious right now? you think that kind of underground information would be on the internet, which was invented by the government? it’s only available in zine form. Justin Bieber, on the other hand, only wears clothing made locally in LA (via American Apparel hoodies) and actually writes uplifting tunes to help the kids with their struggles. not as evil as you might think. have you ever heard a new found glory?
Arizona kid: of coure its in a zine. made by an overweight conspirator living in his moms basement churning out meaingless rantings to convince people or some kid getting a kick out of how easily people will believe what they are told. To me justin biebers musice has no social or ethical integrity or meaning. he just churns out over produced bublebum pop r&b from a face that makes young adolescent girls crazy.
Josiah Hughes: have you ever heard the Bieber song on his early demo called “Punk Ain’t Dead”…the lyrics:
All this music’s gone to my head.
The old man shouts get out of bed.
You know something son, Punk ain’t dead.
Punk ain’t dead, Punk ain’t dead.
Someone said Punk is dead.
Bring him here and we’ll smash his head.
People thought that we’d gone away.
But we’re here and we’re here to stay.
he hides it a bit now, but that kid is punk as FUCK! like i said, look it up!
Arizona kid: prove to this demo exists.
Josiah Hughes: man do you even listen to punk? it’s on killed by death #150
Arizona kid: now prove to me bieber sings it.
Josiah Hughes: prove me wrong, prove me wrong. also, he skateboards!
ask for it at your local punk store. if you’ve ever been to one.
Arizona kid: if it is true, it makes me dislike him even more for faking and using his high pitched voice and weird poofy vests and r&b influence to make money.
so if you cant prove he did, and theres no way i can prove he doesnt other than ask him, were at an impass. i know he skateboards. watch his videos, there pathetic. he barely did a frontside 180 over a two foot drop. i probaly skate better than him.
Josiah Hughes: you also kinda look like him. like a cool punk kid with sweet hair.
Arizona kid: gee thanks.
Josiah Hughes: for real dude, start a pop punk band!
Arizona kid: is this because youve run out of any information that you can or cant prove??
Josiah Hughes: i’m just trying to say, justin bieber is a cool punk kid from my hometown and no one realizes it because they don’t have open minds. but if you open your mind a bit and check out some cool songs by the guy and realize that he’s just an outsider punk like the rest of us you might understand. also have you ever seen him drop in? dude’s a sick skater!
Arizona kid: tell me your facorite songs by him and ill check them out and give you feed back. and from the vids ive seen of him skating he sucks but id like to see some videos you know of him skating well in.
Josiah Hughes: i prefer his early stuff that’s not on the internet, kinda like how Black Flag’s early stuff was their only good stuff. but I do like the song Baby. it’s more of a hip-hop influence. he has the gangsta rapper Ludacris on it. also U Smile has a cool vintage sound kinda like the Gaslight Anthem.
Arizona kid: then i can never apprecate him if i cant hear his supposed good early work that may or may not exist.
Josiah Hughes: next time you go to a record store like Hot Topic make sure you ask. at some stores they might have a few copies of his demo kicking around in the storage room. it’s a 7″
Arizona kid: shut the fuck up about that hot topic shit alright?
and if you hate black flag and love justin bieber why put the two on a shirt? according to your views your comparing the almighty justin bieber with sellout black flag
Josiah Hughes: don’t tell me you don’t go to Hot Topic????? they have so much punk stuff there! studded objects, t-shirts, clothing with the cool black flag four bars on it, cool hair dye, neat stuff
Arizona kid: i cant tell if your being facetious or serious. but i dont BUY punk labled items from a “misunderstood youth” store.
Josiah Hughes: man you’ll get it when you’re older. all of these lines that divide punk and sellout just get blurred and you just wanna skate to hot topic, get some wallet chains, put on a bieber cd and just skaaaaaate. dude they sell Black Flag shirts at Hot Topic, so clearly you are the kind of person who likes Hot Topic.
Arizona kid: now i cant tell if your a genious that has seen the answer to the enigma of punk vs society through a revelation or your just a blathering idiot.
Josiah Hughes: maybe you should be asking the exact same question about justin bieber.
Arizona kid: holy shit your kind of a genious.
One man’s genius is another’s worst enemy, however, as we soon learned with a cease-and-desist letter that ruined our entire operation. It didn’t come from young swoop-hair or his handlers, however. In fact, Justin Bieber went a step further and bought his whole crew the Misfits mash-up shirt. No, the end of our shenanigans came courtesy of Black Flag themselves.
Maybe the shirts eventually popped up in Gregg Ginn’s StumbleUpon, but I’m guessing it started when a friend of ours thought it’d be funny to show Black Flag alum Ron Reyes an image when he was making one of his many visits to Zulu Records in Vancouver. Either way, SST Records treated me to some bizarre legal mumbo jumbo about a cease and desist via our Etsy messaging system.
There was a lot working in our favour, from the legality of a parody to the fact that we’re in Canada and they’re in the United States (come at me, SST), to the question of whether or not you can be served legal documents via, you know, Etsy. Either way, Etsy wised up to the threat and removed our page. Unfortunately, it was the only link that had been spread across Tumblr and a million blogs, so our viral days were over.
Rumour has it that if you email firstname.lastname@example.org, you may be able to access one of the Justin Bieber shirts collecting dust in my apartment. Meanwhile, I’ve got Photoshop open again as I work tirelessly to incorporate One Direction into the Crass logo.
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in the App Store.