He also designed tote bags in a vintage font that say, “Fuck America, I’m Californian” and sold the totes on Spreadshirt, one of the dozen or so sites where custom Me Merch is being designed and sold. “I made, I dunno, eighty bucks?” he said. If you’re in the market to buy someone else’s Me Merch, you can easily browse through Spreadshirt’s marketplace and find the most deranged tee of your dreams. You may even get to be in on someone else’s inside joke. But a good portion of the shirts on Spreadshirt are the kind autogenerated by an algorithm. Right now, for example, I could get a shirt that says “Not Only You’re Dating My Mom You’re Also Dating An Awesome Firefighter” or “I Never Dreamed I’d Grow Up to Be A Super Sexy Philadelphia Girl But Here I Am Killing It.” That’s not Me Merch—that’s A.I. Merch. And to be frank, I’m not interested.
The design process itself for a piece of Me Merch can be intimidating on your first try. As one friend put it, “I feel like every time I’ve designed a shirt, I just go down a rabbit hole and then wake up and realize it’s been an hour and I have no idea what I’m doing,” she said. “But the energy I tend to go for is ‘fun commemorative shirt you’d want to pick up in a thrift store.’” If Virgil Abloh can print a bunch of glyphs on an Off-White tee and sell it for $300, who says you can’t take a stab at the same aesthetic while cruising through wacky icons on Custom Ink? In this friend’s “collection,” she now has a shirt commemorating her 30th birthday, one designed with hugging cartoon rabbits for a friend’s bachelorette, and now, a shirt dedicated to the best bar to have ever closed in under five months. She added that the return of tie-dye as a trend has added an extra layer of excitement to the Me Merch phenomenon. “It’s an ideal hobby to have resurrected from sleepaway camp.” (Or, perhaps, from college: Me Merch’s closest relative might be the logo-flipped T-shirts peddled by fraternities and sororities with amateur graphic design experience.)
“We’re astounded every day by the creativity of folks who take our comprehensive design tool and set out to create something that is 100% their own,” Nizzi Renaud, chief marketing officer at Zazzle, told me over email. “We find that most of us need a little help or inspiration in that regard, but we definitely see folks embrace a blank slate.” Though, these blank slates also come with boundaries: Zazzle and Customink’s content guidelines forbid libelous content, content that violates or incites anyone to violate the law, or any content that infringes upon intellectual property. One friend tried to duck around those guidelines anyway.