The mob and Italian mafia has been a part of popular culture ever since The Godfather catapulted the mythical Don Corleone into the national consciousness. From Al Capone and Lucky Luciano to John Gotti and Sammy the Bull, America has been obsessed with their mobsters and Hollywood has taken note with movies like Casino, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, TV shows like The Sopranos and Growing up Gotti and the forthcoming big budget John Gotti film. Anything mafia is big business and Americans are willing consumers.
We have seen the mugshot or photo image inspired t-shirts. Mobsters have graced posters, book covers and all that. But now Knokaround has come out with a line of high end, conceptualized mafia inspired t-shirts. You really need to check these shirts out they are like that. We went right to the source to get the 411 on the Knokaround t-shirts and the idea and images behind the t-shirts, hats and stickers. meet Christian Cipollini, the founder and creator of the knockarounds.
Why did you start a t-shirt company?
The original idea was actually to create 70’s and 80’s throwback designs of all sorts under the Knock Backs Wear name, which my wife and I co-founded, with the Knokaround Apparel mob-themed shirts being an imprint or special line covering the prohibition era. Individually, we have diverse backgrounds and interests which I think tends to compliment more than conflict, so it was almost a natural step to take – adding a t-shirt company to our list of endeavors – basically because we both equally love pop culture and could bring our different ideas to the table. T-shirts have been an excellent tool for pop culture expression for decades, from rock band shirts to catchy slogan shirts, and this was a fitting (no pun intended) and unified way for us to be even more creative.
What made you want to use the mobster images?
I’ve always been fascinated with history in general, and you can’t ignore or discount organized crime’s role in it. The root of mob interest for me really started in the early nineties when a few friends and I would go check out the newspapers from other cities in our local library. And then I kept seeing headlines, in the New York papers especially, about the guy they called The Teflon Don -John Gotti. I was hooked, always questioning how this very real person could be so charismatic, yet so menacing? Honestly, the idea of putting faces, scenes and information on a t-shirt was inspired there. Back then, we saw a guy set up in a mall kiosk doing some form of t-shirt transfers, putting people’s photos on shirts. I went back with mugshot photocopies of some mobsters and the guy made me a shirt. Damn thing lasted for years too, and always – always got attention. Much later then, my wife would simply remind me of a plan born before I met her. Just took a while to truly realize that vision! Furthermore, my idea was to do a vintage look, screen printed good quality shirts. As I learned, there have been key blocks of time over the last century, and beyond, which really demonstrated the historical and societal impact and evolutions of organized crime. Although featuring some of the people, settings and historical elements in movies, books, trading cards and even posters has been done, we chose to add our creative skills to shirts. There are a few mobster themed shirts out there, we’ve run across from time to time, but we wanted to do something a little different from day one – which essentially was to feature both the history and folklore – not just mugshots – to capture more of the bigger picture of each subject and it’s place in time.
Which mobsters do you feature?
Each shirt design features a primary subject as a focal point, and either an associated backdrop scene or vintage headlines describing the subject. We kicked off the Knokaround line with classic prohibition-era mobsters such as Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Other shirts feature collage scenes like the group shot of Bugsy and Murder Inc.’s Louis “Lepke” Buchalter for example or Lucky Luciano with the Diamond brothers. Our newest shirt, Harlem Underworld, features the iconic mobster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson in silhouette overlooking thirties era Harlem street. We also have Dutch Schultz, Madame St. Clair and Lucky Luciano included in the background as well, encompassing the whole Harlem numbers racket playmakers of that time in history.
Who does all the designs and how do you come up with your concepts?
I do all the designs. Initial conceptualization is usually a team effort. I could be watching a documentary or reading old newspapers online, for example, and a moment or individual will strike me as something very interesting or important. I’ll go from there and research some more, basically daydream with artistic interpretations swirling in my head, throw down some mock ups and take it to the team – see what everyone thinks. My wife or associates will often bounce ideas off me as well. There’s so much that inspires and certainly no shortage of material on the subject. Everyone involved shows amazing skills when it comes to brainstorming. Concepts develop further when certain criteria are met such as how unique, artistic or unusual, practicality of the final product itself, and of course it has to look cool while capturing the subject’s factual and folklore properties. And there’s our tag line, Individual… with a Mob Mentality. We wanted the product to be unique and maybe raise an eyebrow from passer bys, but more importantly the people wearing it are individual in their tastes and style, so if they’re wearing a Knokaround shirt – they’ve also got that ‘mob mentality.’ As for the Knokaround logo concept, well, the floating abstract gangster heads is what I affectionately call our ‘ghosts of gangsters past.’ Just more imagery that remains consistent with the overall design themes we strive for – street couture contemporary, yet a little retro and classic.
How many t-shirts or products do you have out now?
We currently have eight shirt designs, available in various color options, and several more designs rolling out this winter and spring. All of the shirts are 100% organic cotton and screen-printed. We also have Flexfit flatbill caps embroidered with our ‘gangster ghosts’ logo. Stickers are always a popular item too, so there are half a dozen different stickers designs to choose from – all printed on indoor/outdoor quality vinyl. Lots more in the works.
What are your future plans for the company?
We are working on more classic era mobster shirt designs right now. The Black Hand and Murder Inc. are a couple subjects on the drawing board. Also, a women’s line of shirts. Then, a foray further into the urban gangster theme. Plenty of amazing ideas brewing and very interesting collaborations in the works.
How can people order your shirts and products?
Currently, all of our products are available at www.knockbacks.com. For each product we offer, I write a brief bio or synopsis of the story behind the subject featured. Early on, selling our first shirts out of the trunk of my car (literally), I had a few customers who loved certain designs but really didn’t know much about these guys and would ask me. So, I wanted to provide some information for those that may find a particular item of interest, but are perhaps unaware of the basic scenario or history surrounding the particular mobster or scene. And since we love a good sale, we always run interesting promos and like to throw little freebies in every order as well. Anyone interested can also check out our facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/knokaround?sk=wall.
Are you a big fan of mobsters, the mafia and stuff like that? why?
I am. But that said, it’s not so much in a glorification of the many ills these organizations caused society, but more out of the importance and consequence – good, bad and ugly – they had on economics, culture and history itself. There is indeed a romance we have with concepts of power and charisma that’s found in the underworld. I believe the cult fanfare for both real and Hollywood mobster tales exists, at least partially, because a pop culture society simply adores living vicariously – which is cool, and a helluva lot safer than actually choosing the gangster lifestyle in real life.
What movies or books in this genre have influenced you?
Too many to name them all. But specific influences would include The Godfather films, Mean Streets, New Jack City, Superfly, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America and I know its cliché – but of course Scarface. As for books, I would definitely say The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano (though many researches challenge the validity and authenticity, i.e. how much of it was actually Luciano’s words versus author’s creative license), Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life by Robert Lacey, Murder Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate by Burton Turkus and Sid Feder. Informer Journal is an excellent source of really well-researched organized crime history, and I read that often. More recently, I’ve become very interested in books that explore the impact of the ‘urban’ gangster’s role in organized crime history such as Tales from the Hood by Chepesiuk and Wilson, and the Street Legends series by Seth Ferranti. Learning new elements of the entire subject is something that I never get tired of, so I’m influenced all the time and from a broad range of works.
What do you think is the state of the Italian mob today?
That’s a good question. In image alone, the Italian mob will probably always have a powerful allure or fascination for people. As for its role in economics and society from a realistic standpoint… well, some would suggest there simply isn’t the need or opportunities available for it to flourish like it did twenty, thirty, eighty years ago. There have been recent newsworthy busts, so it’s still a viable organization in some capacity or nobody would do it. But again, obviously there is no prohibition on alcohol and gambling is more and more accessible legitimately now, and even in the case of unions – what the Mafia dominated simply doesn’t exist in the old form anymore. In Italy, well that’s perhaps a different story, as the ‘Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra still make the news on a fairly regular basis. Now, it’s the cartels and as long as the drug trade continues as such, well it’s probably gangs and cartels that have the lock on organized crime opportunity. There will no doubt always be some form of the Mafia in on some racket – it just may not be as all encompassing or influential. As history shows, there are trends. It’s all based on what can bring in the paper, and what contraband product or service the masses want. These things change over time and understandably the dissolution or natural changes of one organization usually ushers in a completely new or evolved organization to take its place. Probably the main element that isn’t very important in any of these groups anymore… honor. Sure, we’re talking about criminals, but you have to admit that greed really seems to be the only foundation most groups are built on. That was true throughout history as well, but there was more honor, some rules within many organizations, some respect for each other. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure that exists quite as much in any organized crime group anymore, domestically speaking at least.
What do you think of the urban gangsters and magazines like Don Diva and F.E.D.S. and movies like American Gangster?
Magazines such as Don Diva and F.E.D.S may never be embraced by the mainstream, but thanks to publications such as those, people can still read and write about controversial or non-mainstream topics. I know, being a journalist myself, that I’m not one to be limited by what only the mainstream or commercial media offers in terms of research or entertainment. I’m always on the hunt for interesting and unusual sources of information and inspiration. And movies you ask… I can’t get enough of them! Definitely a film fanatic.
Can they have the same affect as the mafia stuff in popular culture?
Absolutely. American Gangster the film was hugely popular, albeit a lot of creative license taken with the facts like most gangster/mobster bio pics. Urban gangster history goes way back, and now the general public is seeing just how much influence and effect through books, films, and documentaries. Just look at Bumpy Johnson’s role and recognition during the mob’s heyday. From the sixties and seventies there are guys like Frank Matthews and Ike “Sgt. Smack” Atkinson garnering new or renewed interest. Pop culture and underground culture are in bed together more now than ever before. Major and independent rappers have been making songs about street icons from their hoods, and documentaries covering this subject are on television. All of this transcends ethnic and cultural walls because it’s all fascinating to what I believe is a broader audience now and only going to become bigger. If it wasn’t popular – we wouldn’t have movies like Hoodlum and American Gangster, nor would networks run shows like Gangland and American Gangster. And there’s more film and books on the horizon that address the stories of infamous urban gangsters. As long as we are captivated by the life and times of these sometimes-mythological and legendary mobsters, gangsters and hustlers… there will always be a place in pop culture for them.
We are new on the block and we’ve got the goods. Knokaround – Individual… with a Mob Mentality!