Abraham “Abe” El Makawy and Michael “Mikey” Saunders, two best friends from the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn, design and print T-shirts and other ephemera for a small interconnected group of New York creatives and musicians. The two work out of Saunders’ parents’ expansive print shop in Gowanus and call their own operation AINT WET. The name is partly a joke interpolating the “Wet Paint” signs that litter New York City subways and partly a reflection on the Saunders family business, which was nearly destroyed after Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012.
Clients come to AINT WET through word of mouth, and there usually needs to be a sort of special sauce present before work begins: an alignment of views between the duo and client — creative, political, and metaphysical. In preparation for designing the art for New York rapper MIKE’s Black Soap project, El Makawy traveled to London, where MIKE was recording, and scoured family documents that the rapper himself was seeing for the first time. The duo’s work for other clients, from downtown punk outfit Show Me The Body to Bronx rapper Caleb Giles, all share that deeply personal touch. It’s a far cry from “micromerch,” the very modern phenomenon of successful internet stars turning their fame into profit by selling merchandise.
To coincide with the release of experimental jazz outfit Standing On The Corner’s recent record Red Burns, Abe designed and released a limited run of T-shirts for AINT WET that was well aligned with the band's political energy, and could well serve as a primer on the company’s ethos. The shirts featured a rendering of a mural near the Smith & 9th Street Subway station, just a few blocks from their shop, of an eagle staring out into space in front of an American flag, the Twin Towers standing behind it in place of stars. The mural, like many overtly patriotic images, can conjure memories of the Islamophobia that followed 9/11, as much as it can inspire love of country. AINT WET’s T-shirt managed to subvert that negative connotation, adding a layer of precision with the power to unmask a bigot. The Arabic greeting “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” which translates to “Peace be with you,” is printed in Hummer-esque font beneath the image.
On a Sunday afternoon in May, I met up with El Makawy and Saunders at their Gowanus shop.
How did you guys first meet?
ABRAHAM EL MAKAWY: Our parents grew up across the street from one another. Our moms, they're both named Susan. So Mikey's mom Susan's nickname was Monty— her maiden name was Montaperto. But I still call her Monty. People think I'm saying “mom,” but in a way we kind of—
MICHAEL SAUNDERS: We both have two moms.
ABE: And then our dads — my dad came from Egypt,
MIKEY: My dad came from Puerto Rico. My dad grew up in the Bronx. My mom's Italian, my Dad's Puerto Rican. So it's that real like Bronx Tale story going on. It's very cute.
How did Aint Wet start?
MIKEY: We were always finding [projects] to do together, and then when we got into high school and started college it was like, how do we keep on finding time to be friends? Because obviously we both have different career interests and goals. How can we put those two together and collaborate on a thing that we've been working on for so long now?
ABE: My freshman year of college was the year Hurricane Sandy happened. We lost the shop and then ended up with a printing press. Mikey had just graduated from high school, and me being out of high school a year, we rebuilt the press.
MIKEY: When the storm came in, the first thing my parents needed to do was replace all this equipment that was destroyed. They had found some guy that was really generous, and he threw some [equipment] in for free. One of them was the screen press. I remember seeing it and being like, that doesn't even take electricity. I could really just do this in my spare time.
So is that how the idea to start screen printing came about, after Sandy?
MIKEY: We had always been interested in making t-shirts, but it always felt very out of reach.
ABE: We didn't really fuck with streetwear either. We just would look at the printing on a shirt and be more interested in how they made it? How did this happen? How does this thing exist?
MIKEY: So we just fixed [the press] up. Basically, I would work for my parents over the entire summer. After I was done working for them [during the day], at around 8 o’clock at night, Abe would come by. We would work into the night when no one else was around, making mistakes and learning stuff.
ABE: We didn't even have a space. We would roll [the press] out into the hallway and just print there. But AINT WET was, as a name, something I was doing beforehand. It was like kind of like a really stupid assignment in school or something. It was about Duchamp readymades. People would make “Wet Paint” into “Aint wet” all the time. But I was like, what if I physically made an AINT WET sign that told someone it was dry, because often it says wet paint and it's incorrect? Why not just let someone know that you can lean on it? How that correlated to being the name of what we were printing, I don't know. The signs were printed here at the shop.
Your parents had this shop for how long?
MIKEY: We've been here in this space for like 10 to 11 years, but the business has been around for 15 or 16 years. I grew up in this. I remember being a little kid and being so fascinated by the sounds of the machines, the ink, the smell of it all. It wasn't until I was 18 that I was actually allowed to touch things. Because, you know, child labor laws and stuff like that. But before then I've just been watching and really getting into it.
ABE: From the drop, we were playing hide and seek here, just hanging out, because it was like, my friend wasn't around on the weekends, he was at the shop. I'd come down, hang out here in the summer. We'd go by the water, catch horseshoe crabs, barbecue, that kind of stuff. When I graduated school I had already been printing for three years, but we were just doing it for fun. We hadn't started printing for musicians. It was still very much a learning experience. AINT WET hadn’t released its own t shirts, we were maybe running small jobs for other people. The Hole gallery asked us to print T- shirts. That was our first big job. I quit my job at a carpentry shop and just ran that job.
When it comes to who you guys work with, what is your philosophy on how a collaboration comes about?
ABE: It can probably be broken down into a couple of different things. I don't think everyone has a voice. I don't think everyone has the opportunity to have a voice. Through printing, we can provide a voice. And with that is a privilege. Me and Mikey grew up in an Italian community and we were like these half-breeds, you know, like me being Muslim, I didn't go to Catholic school, and Mikey went to Catholic school but still felt very disconnected. The musicians we work with are often people who feel disconnected as well, and speak voices that are either the same as ours, similar to ours, or adjacent to ours.
MIKEY: They all represent a part of a marginalized community.
ABE: Exactly. And if we can provide ammunition for that, that's cool. A lot of the artists are independent. Some of them don't make direct money on their music, some of them do, but selling merchandise allows them to make money. And being able to work creatively, designing and putting on someone else's hat, like to see the world through MIKE’s eyes or through Show Me The Body's eyes is a different thing, because a lot of time I'm just talking about myself and my own feelings. So a collaboration is not being yourself, it’s helping someone else be them, and them helping you be you — it's this fusion of the two. There's a give and take.
Merch is such a lucrative thing now that it's kind of easy to become either famous online or to go viral and to turn that into quick money with merchandise. How do you guys see yourselves in the landscape of all of the merch that exists?
MIKEY: I think the first thing that you could say is that, for most people who hit viral status and make merch, it's always this outsourced thing. It's like, Oh, I just made a design and I sent it to someone else to make and I don't know this person. It's like a separated company. Whereas we're like, okay, we are making the [item] here. We're the ones with our hands in it and we’re who you’re talking to and we know the people who we’re making things for, so it's like [the client] is really handing their trust to us to make this thing.
ABE: Who's making your shirt? Who's that money going to? What else are they printing? You know, like you could walk down Canal Street. There's an Obama T-shirt next to a Make America Great Again T shirt. They were probably printed by the same person. They're not thinking about it.
MIKEY: You want the person who's making stuff to care about your stuff.
ABE: If there's DIY music we're DIY merch.
Mikey designed the website too, right?
MIKEY: Design is just the visual aspect. But yeah, we didn't want to be on Shopify. If we were going to do this [by the] bootstraps approach that we've done with everything else, why outsource to a website like Shopify if we can just make the website that handles Paypal transactions ourselves.
ABE: We run Show Me The Body’s [online] store. We run Crumb's [online] store, and the money they make goes directly to them. We just host it on our site.
MIKEY: I've basically created a system where we're hosting all these products for them and when someone purchases something [the website is] like this middleman that sends the money to the people it belongs to. It's just nice because it's it's not like, we're relying on this other third party to do that. We are the third party now almost, which is kind of interesting.
How did the conversation about MIKE’s Black Soap artwork happen?
ABE: The imagery and the concepts are all MIKE’s Ideas. Bringing it to life was something that I got to be hands [on with]. I got to listen. I think listening is really important. Like when we worked on [Show Me The Body’s] challenge coin, I just listened to [band members] Julian [Pratt] and Harlan [Steed] and Noah [Cohen-Corbett] talk about what [the project] meant to them. And then, I brought up the concept of the challenge coin, something they didn't know about, and it worked. Same thing with MIKE — I was going through all of his family documents and I found his grandfather's funerary pamphlet from when he passed away in Nigeria. The format for that was the ads that we made for the project, a blue background with these little frames, with clouds hanging over, that was from his grandfather's funeral pamphlet. Everything you see is referencing these objects that he hadn't seen in so long because he was separated from home. He got to see his mom's things. It always felt like MIKE’s imagery wasn't set in stone yet, but going [to London], his visual makeup was right in front of us. We got to see his family tree and all of these things.
Do you think coming from an immigrant background yourself, you could identify with sourcing material from your home and reconnecting with it after being disconnected from it?
ABE: Absolutely. I tap into a lot of 9/11 and Islamophobic imagery, especially because it's so inherent to New York. I'm a New Yorker, and being a Muslim, I see those two things and then I see these, like, symbols of hate. They're everywhere and they're gone, but then they're still there. That's imagery that I've tapped into, making that connection of something that's personal to me but universal enough for people to understand or maybe identify with — it's very similar to Mike tapping into Nollywood movies that he didn't want to watch with his mom. He'd be like, I don't get it, and now he goes back and looks at his youth and goes, Actually, this imagery is the imagery that I feel the closest to. You know, it's the thing that you didn't want to look at, the thing that made you angry. And, I don't know, somehow it becomes a part of you, the good and the bad.
Abe — you’ve mentioned that you have a background in sculpture. How does that inform how you're making shirts now?
ABE: There's all of these different elements [with shirt making]. There's different fabrics, and they interact with each other differently. They get beat up. They wear [with use and time], so I think about how is this going to look five years from now, and I always want it to look better. I don't like when something’s too clean. Like, a design shouldn't be perfect when you get it, it should be perfect once it's been destroyed. It should become what you wanted it to be. And that's what separates it from art entirely. Art, once the artist's hands are off of it, it's not meant to be touched. It's meant to be looked at, and T-shirts are still looked at, but they're touched every day. They couldn't be closer to you. You know, people destroy the shirts they're in. People die in a shirt, people fall in love in a shirt, you know?
Once you started getting into this work did you start realizing that the work you wanted to do as an artist was possible with this medium?
ABE: Definitely. And I think that we're kind of working class, and I love having deadlines, so this is all of that. My sculptures were about being a construction worker or about pretending to be an MTA person and thinking about how they have to paint all day, but they're not thinking about it as a paint brush, they’re thinking about it as a job. But when I'm on the press it's both of those things. I've hybridized me loving working but also loving being the artist. I get to be the person who designs something and prints it. The mind and the hands. And not just referencing [labor], actually doing it. There's no pretending.
Are you coming to a place now where you have the confidence to execute more of your visions?
ABE: Yeah, I guess I don't know who else is going to speak for me, and for so long my fine art was about Abe, and to make T-shirts that was for everybody else. I think I said I didn't want to be a fine artist anymore, but it came through and I don't think you should ever not be something that you are. It's going to be there, like, you can't hide from that.