By Michele Brittany, A West Coast Bleeding Cool Correspondent
I met Franco Te briefly at an event a couple of months ago and then again last month at the Long Beach Comic Expo where he and his brother, Francis, had a booth for their t-shirt business called Tee No Evil. Business at their table was brisk over the weekend where people could pick original designed horror themed shirts and sketches. Watching the brothers in action, I could discern they had a close working relationship, complimenting each other’s strengths: Franco had a head for business, while Francis brought a unique creative vision. And obviously, they shared a passion for the horror genre.
Bleeding Cool interviewed them to learn more about the brothers and their business that pays homage and plays with horror tropes in creative new ways.
Michele Brittany: I often see husband and wife teams at the con, but I think you two are the first brother exhibitors I’ve come across. Can you tell me more about yourselves?
Franco Te: Ever since we were kids, my brother, Francis (artist) and I have been really close. We did everything together. We’d go to the comic shop to check out the latest comics. We grew up really poor (our mom was single, worked two jobs and raised us by herself) so my brother and I would recycle cans. We combined what we got from the cans and buy a comic. Since we could only buy one comic at a time, we’d have a big long discussion which one we’d get. I think our hardship from a very young age made us really close and understand each other.
MB: Have zombies and horror been a part of your lives for a long time?
Franco Te: I remember watching Day Of The Dead in the 80’s. That was my introduction to zombies. After that I watched the rest of George A Romero’s zombie flicks. What intrigued me about zombies are their origins. It’s never fully revealed and leaves it to the viewers’ imagination how they came back from the dead. The uncertainty is what connects with zombies the most because life is very unpredictable.
Francis Te: I remember watching a horror film when I was very little. I can’t remember how old I was. But, I remember the terrible experiences I had after watching that film. I can’t even remember the title of the film, but it’s about a mother that couldn’t let go of her dead son. So, she made a deal with the devil to bring him back to life. The son was a pianist.
One night, there was a thunderstorm (there’s always a thunderstorm) and the piano started playing. In front of the backdrop of the lightning inside a big window was the silhouette of the son playing the piano. That was the most horrifying scene that stuck in my mind. It’s still in my head right now (laughs)! That’s what I get for sneaking up at night, and watching a horror flick!
Maybe I should design a shirt based on that.
MB: And, what is each of your favorite zombie/horror story?
Franco Te: My favorite horror zombie flick is the remake of The Crazies. It wasn’t a huge hit at the box office. I didn’t expect much of it but when I watched it, I was surprised how crazy some of the scenes were. I really enjoyed it because the characters had a lot of heart and they made wise choices.
Francis Te: I like the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead with Ving Rhames. The action scenes were pretty fantastic, and the characters were both good and bad, some were even worse than the zombies. To me, good zombie stories are focused on the living.
MB: You have a clever business name, but what were some of the other names you considered before settling on Tee No Evil?
Franco Te: ScaredShirtless and ScaryTees were two we had in mind. It was hard coming up with Tee No Evil: it took us six weeks to come up with it. My brother, Francis, suggested it after listening to Eminem. He was looking for words that flowed. Once he told me, I told him right away, we got our name.
MB: Why t-shirts?
Franco Te: I’m a sucker for shirts. Whenever there’s an art walk, I always look for unique shirts from local artists. I like shirts because it’s fun and it’s a form of expression. People can know me without me saying a single word because of the shirt I’m wearing. It’s all about expression!
MB: You did a Kickstarter last August. What made you decide to use crowd funding to start up your business? How did it go?
Franco Te: We decided to do crowd funding because we told friends and family about our venture and everyone wanted to help out. Then I saw director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) do a Kickstarter for an animated movie. That was my first introduction to Kickstarter. My brother and I did research on Kickstarter and learned it was a perfect tool for us.
Kickstarter was a great experience. It got us ready for the real world. We had to create a budget, spread the word and present the designs in our video. It was a very tough and nervous 30 days. We reached our goal in our third week but we couldn’t relax because we had to make sure the promised rewards would get to the backers on time. I think more than half of Kickstarter projects don’t meet their promised deadline. We were aware of this from the very get go and made sure we delivered ours on time. We take pride in our service and we wanted to start on the right track. Even today, we answer right away when someone contacts us.
What surprised us about Kickstarter was that so many strangers supported us, about ten of them were even from overseas. Everyone was really supportive and we can’t thank them enough. It was very inspiring.
MB: I see that zombies are a main theme for your t-shirts, what sets your designs apart from the crowd?
Franco Te: There’s plenty of cool zombie designs out there and we love those. What we’re offering to zombie fans is my brother’s unique artwork mixed in with a sense of humor. My brother’s art is dynamic and gritty and we make sure it’s captured in each of our designs. We’re both perfectionists so we make sure we only offer shirts that we would wear. Our priority has always been quality; we make sure the shirts are comfy and durable.
MB: I love your business cards – toe tags! – and your respective job titles: Franco you’re Zombie Herder and Francis you’re Mad Artist. How do you embody and perpetuate your titles?
Franco Te: Great catch! The titles are Easter eggs for the ones that pay attention to detail. I’m very detail oriented so I love little details here and there. We did the titles for fun and to bring a smile to each one that reads our contact info.
The mad artist title goes to my brother because he’s the one that comes up with the crazy designs that no sane person will think of! As for me, the Zombie Herder, I figured if there was a zombie apocalypse, I’d herd all of the flesh eaters so there won’t be any stragglers and I’d be safe walking the streets.
MB: Tell me more about your business relationship? What do each of you bring to your business?
Franco Te: Our business relationship is very organic. I love art but can’t draw. My brother and I brainstorm all the time, sometimes for a whole week. Once we have an idea for the next design, I’ll draw my stick figures while my brother draws detailed sketches. Once we see each other’s concept, we discuss some more. My brother finalizes the design and sends it to the shirt printer.
MB: Francis, I’ve noticed that your designs have multiple meanings, a surface meaning, but then there’s the subtle meaning. Can you share your process for creating your designs?
Francis Te: Subtle meanings and symbols make it fun for me. That’s a way for me to keep working on designs without getting flustered. As an artist, it’s important for me to stay motivated, so I add little things in my artwork that helps build the story or connects one design to the next!
MB: Zombies and horror naturally invite the grungy, grind house motifs – Francis, which artists inspire you?
Francis Te: Bill Watterson is a master when it comes to ink and brush. I would look through the collections of Calvin and Hobbes, studying the illustrations, without reading the texts. Then, there’s comic books. I see comic books as affordable illustration books. I have stacks of comics at home that I use them for inspiration. There are so many great artists out there, but the grungy styles always attract me. I study Jim Lee’s sketches all the time. I would search “Jim Lee sketches” on youtube, and just sit there and watch him do 2-minute sketches. There’s also Sean Murphy, Dustin Nguyen, and Rafael Albuquerque (all three worked on American Vampire).
MB: Which design has been the most popular? What popular culture icons can we next see on one of your t-shirts?
Francis Te: Teamwork is most popular. I think it’s the message. But importantly, it’s the simplicity of the design. I’m a big fan of Graffiti art, so that’s something in the works too!
Franco Te: Teamwork has been really popular and that was one of the first designs. I think everyone loves that because it’s a combination of a sports term and blood and guts. We’re thinking of doing a Banksy inspired design soon. We always listen to our supporters and if they suggest a design, we’ll consider it.
MB: When I visited your booth at the Long Beach Comic Expo, you also had drawings for sale. Will some of those designs grace your t-shirts or are the pen/inks a creative output separate from the t-shirts?
Francis Te: The prints are different from the shirt designs. We try to make it special for everyone that stops by our booth in person. We have several for sale and we also throw free limited exclusive prints for certain conventions. The one we offered in Long Beach Comic Expo was gone in a couple of hours. It’s our way of thanking the supporters.
Franco Te: My brother takes 2-3 commissions per convention. He loves to draw but his eyes are very sensitive, especially at cons when it’s not super bright. So he has to take a lot of breaks.
MB: What’s the next business goal for Tee No Evil?
Franco Te: The next step for Tee No Evil is to go to cons outside Southern California. We both have full time jobs so it’s hard to get days off and prep up for a con that’s far.
MB: What shows are on the horizon for you?
Franco Te: We have 626 Night Market from Friday, June 20 through Saturday, June 21. After that we have the big wrestling event OCCW (Orange County Championship Wrestling). It’s their third event and we’re excited. It’s so fun watching wrestling live, especially with everyone being super friendly. Reminds me of the old school wrestling days.
MB: Anything else you would like at add that I might have missed?
Franco Te: We want to thank you for giving us the opportunity for this interview. Special thanks to our mom. She raised us by ourselves and worked two jobs! Also a big thanks to everyone we’ve met through this incredible journey. Artists like Philip Tan, Dustin Nguyen, Joel Gomez, Richard Friend, and Tim Bradstreet helping us from the very get go. John De La O, our jiu jitsu instructor. The whole school helped us with the Kickstarter video. Family and friends that have always been supportive.
We really appreciate everyone that has stopped by our booth, we wouldn’t be here without them. Some of them stopped by from our first event and every time we see them, they stop and say hi. That means a lot to us and it keeps us even more inspired!
T-shirt photographs courtesy of Tee No Evil. All other photographs by Michele Brittany.
Michele Brittany is an independent popular culture scholar and semi-professional photographer currently editing an upcoming anthology on the influence of James Bond on popular culture. She regularly posts reviews and analysis on the spy/espionage genre on her blog, Spyfi & Superspies.