BIDSTITCH – The Thread | Credit: Glass-Onion.com
3D Emblem has produced some of the most intricate, coveted and sought after t-shirts for vintage collectors and motorcycle enthusiasts. The screen-printing company was founded in 1952, making shirts and jerseys for local sports teams and businesses. Later on they would start making Japanese motorcycle shirts, and in the 80s/90s would famously acquire the license to start printing Harley Davidson t-shirts. 3D Emblem graphics are instantly recognizable and have a very unique, “American,” charm to them. Much of that charm can be attributed to Steve McDonald, who worked at 3D Emblem for over 30 years.
We had the amazing opportunity to speak with him and discover what it was like to work at 3D Emblem, and hear his thoughts about the vintage t-shirt market today!
Who are you?
“My name is Steve McDonald, I’m currently 71 years old, living in Texas.”
How did you get started as an artist? What did you do before 3D Emblem?
“I’ve been doing art since I was five years old. I had very little training as far as going to college. I took some courses at a junior college but didn’t end up getting a degree. I went to the college of hard knocks haha. I got a lot better at it over the years. The Harley/biker art style came about later in life. It was a big thing growing up, and what I originally was designing for at 3D Emblem. It’s crazy that there’s still people that find me on Facebook and say, “that’s Steve McDonald’s art style.”
When did you start working at 3D Emblem? What was that like?
“I started working at 3D Emblem in 1965 at 14 years old. We were making mostly biker themed t-shirts, to be sold at the flea market and swap meet. The guy who eventually bought 3d emblem also bought the license to make Harley Davidson shirts, and the rest is history. 3D Emblem started out making Japanese bike t-shirts and some Harley Davidson ones. The Harley shirts ended up selling the best so that’s why he bought the license.
When I became the art director at 3D Emblem I had around 10-15 people working under me. At one time we had about 15 automatic printers, producing 100,000 shirts per day. The crazy thing about it was the technology we had. Our graphics and shirts were being made with half tones, which was never being done before on black t-shirts. At the time there were around five to six other companies that were doing Harley shirts, but none of them had half tone printing. We were so far ahead of the competition it was crazy.“
How long did you work for them?
“I worked at 3D Emblem for over 30 years. I quit 3D Emblem around 1993 and started freelancing. I was still able to do very well for myself and one year after I quit, the company went out of business. It’s a totally different game nowadays. Everything is digital and on computers. For me I love it. With my computer I thought I died and went to heaven. In the old days it was near impossible to fix a mistake. On a computer it can be fixed in a matter of minutes.”
What was that motorcycle culture like back in the day?
“The bikers in the 80s were a huge population. They’re kind of like nomads. They were unique, and I don’t know how those guys did it. And they all loved the t-shirts. The black t-shirt was the biker wardrobe. They always had 10-20 t-shirts when they took a trip. It was a lifestyle. Now it’s different and bikers are more weekend warriors. It became Americana and had a life of its own.”
How did the design process at 3D Emblem work?
“First, we had to come up with the idea, which was a lot of trial and error, and a lot of luck. Our boss was really relaxed and flexible. We had plenty of time to experiment and come up with creative ideas. There was no schedule because at the end of the day, he trusted in us. To a degree, we had free range and could do whatever we wanted as long as it would sell. The process was very democratic, we would all vote on what designs we would think would sell the best. We then had to send the designs to Harley to get approved, but we were hardly ever rejected on a design.”
You can definitely see they had a lot of creativity in their designs
“Originally, the designs were made on illustration boards and canvas, which we would then photograph it. All the art was done in grayscale, then would convert around 20-30 exposures to get the final image. The process would take around 40 hours to make a single design.”
Any interesting stories/memories to share from that time?
“There’s plenty of stories to tell. When you’re working with 10 artists theres always room for crazy stuff to happen. Everyone had their own personal lives, and they would bring that into work with them. We were like a dysfunctional family type of thing. It could have been a comedy show from the outside. Work was never miserable, and we always had a lot of fun. You would think we were all crazy. Artists are a different group of people than your average person.”
Do you have a personal favorite design of yours?
“One of my personal favorites is the survivors 3D Emblem shirt with the wolf, motorcycle and sky background.”
How do you feel about vintage Harley Davidson shirts/ especially 3D Emblems soaring in value?
“Never in a thousand years would I have thought our shirts would be this valuable and popular. It’s honestly beyond my wildest dreams. I could have never imagined this would happen.
In the beginning, we would bring the t-shirts to sell at swap meets and biker events. In one weekend we would make around 3 thousand dollars. I’d buy them for 2 dollars and sell them for 10.
Here is Steve’s favorite design at a whopping $1500+. Obviously it may not sell for this price, but still, it goes to show the perception of value for 3D Emblem shirts.
I remember I got asked about helping out doing designs for a Paris fashion week runway show, and they were wearing biker shirts! I see my shirts all over, in movies, TV, interviews and concerts, it’s absolutely crazy.”
Do you still have any of the shirts you designed?
“I always got a sample of the shirts that we made, and at one time, I probably had about 200-300 shirts in my closet. At the time, my son was in 8th grade, and he loved wearing those shirts to school. He would be the coolest kid in school wearing a biker t-shirt in class. After a divorce, everything went south, and the shirts kind of got lost in the process. Years later I called my ex-wife said she said she had no clue where the shirts went.”
Do you have any plans to release more artwork and t-shirts?
“I wish there was still a way to tap back into that t-shirt market. I’m still interested in producing t-shirts. I’m currently working with a screen printer in Kentucky and my goal is to remake some of the original 3D Emblem designs. I wonder if they would sell, because half the people like them because of the HD trademark, and the other half because they are vintage. But I think I could make any type of biker art on a black t-shirt, and it would sell because it resembles the style from the 80s.”
We want to give a huge thank you to Steve for taking the time out to speak with us. He has an amazing story to tell, and there’s still so much more to learn. We know he will continue to design, and who knows? Maybe we will see some of his new artwork come up as the next big modern bootleg! No matter what, Steve has cemented his legacy not only in the motorcycle community, but in the vintage t-shirt community as well.