There is a simple kind of brilliance to 36 Ghosts, a fashion label founded on the idea that profound artwork can come from the uncomplicated coupling of two complementary mediums: tattoo art and street apparel. It’s almost too obvious of a marriage, one that has had it’s share of missteps in the past. Ed Hardy is the brand most associated with the concept, but it quickly became over-commercialized, was marketed to the lowest common denominator, and collapsed. Nate Heim, founder of 36 Ghosts, is doing what Hardy only aspired to: allowing wearers to express the aesthetic of tattoos through their clothing. In the process, Heim is also pioneering the next evolution of tattoo art, creating a new form of the genre altogether.
Heim has been a tattoo artist for the past twelve years. Though he currently works at Alley Cat Tattoo in Harrisonburg, he got his start in his hometown of Martinsville. For most of the 20th century, Martinsville was big on textiles, employing around 20,000 workers at the peak of the industry, even earning a reputation as the sweatshirt capital of the world. But with the push towards globalization in the 80s and 90s, most of those workers were left unemployed, and only a handful of factories avoided being shut down completely. It was on a trip back home in 2015 when Heim was inspired by these remaining businesses.
“I had zero interest in making clothes up to about two years ago,” said Heim. “I purchased a t-shirt from a company run by Frank Frazetta’s family. He was an amazing fantasy artist from the 70s. They put his paintings on dye-sub t-shirts. The paintings would be on the front and the back would be blank.” Dye-sub, the short name for fully dye-sublimation printing, is a process in which heat transfers ink onto fabric, making that ink permanent and impervious to peeling or fading. The process also allows ink to be printed all the way to the edge of an object, making it possible to wrap a piece of clothing with a continuous, flowing image. Learning about how his t-shirt purchase was created got Heim thinking, “I wondered if artists could design paintings specifically for the purpose and shape of clothing.” With his existing network of artist friends, he could already see the potential for what 36 Ghosts would become. “I didn’t realize the industry I was stepping into and how serious and intense it could get. It was totally foreign to me, but I’m figuring it out as I go.”
Heim approached his co-worker at Alley Cat, Andy Conner, with the idea, and they began brainstorming different designs, eventually settling on a Rock of Ages design that Conner had made. From there, Heim approached Brian Bruno from Richmond’s Absolute Art, Timothy Hoyer out of New York, Joel Long at Bolder Ink, Tim Lehi, and finally Yutaro Sakai. All the artists were familiar and comfortable with tattooing full body pieces, so they had an easy transition to designing for clothing apparel. In December 2016, 36 Ghosts released their first line of shirts. “I love the energy of it, I think people really identify with it,” said Heim. “Tattoos are moving images. They’re constantly in flow and in motion, and the clothing is, too. I love the correlation between the two.”
As for the name of the company itself, Heim looked to Japanese printmaking for inspiration, specifically New Forms of the Thirty-Six Ghosts, a print series done by Yoshitoshi between 1889–1892. “It was the finest printmaking made by man, in my opinion. They emboss it, there are metallic flakes and ink, the process is incredibly intricate,” said Heim. “When searching for a name, I definitely wanted to reference Japanese printmaking because I felt like the artwork would naturally lean in that direction given the artists I had in mind.”
36 Ghosts currently offers sweatshirts, t-shirts, and socks, and will soon expand its line to feature women’s clothing, including shirts, leggings and skirts, from artists Claudia De Sabe and Jill Bonny. The clothes are manufactured in the United States, a decision Heim made while the company was still in its conceptual phase. “The way I see it, it might be more cost effective to manufacture overseas, but what does that mean? It means you don’t know who is making the clothes, you don’t know if they’re treated right,” Heim explained. “The clothing industry has varying ethics. I know if we make clothes in this country, the workers are compensated well, they’re not slaves.”
All the apparel is available on the 36 Ghosts website and artists receive royalties for the sale of their work. Heim is still tattooing full time, working as an artist and now a business owner, sending out clothes as far away as Australia, Japan, Switzerland, and France. “I’m working around the clock, I have two careers. I’ve always taken tattooing very seriously and now I’m moonlighting as a fashion guy—which was never my intention,” Heim said with a laugh.
The success of 36 Ghosts has been remarkable given that the company is barely half a year old. Their social media following is already huge and growing, and they’re looking at different ways to produce more intricate pieces of clothing. Heim already has an eye toward the future, keeping in mind the company’s humble beginnings in a textile plant that was once the lifeblood of Martinsville. “My home town was devastated by the textile industry leaving,” he said. “If I can create something and help bring jobs back to the area eventually, that would be a huge long term goal for me.”
To see the full line of 36 Ghosts apparel, visit 36ghosts.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers