In the weeks following September 11, 2001, Kevin Stacy was in a bit of a crisis. Hospitalized that summer with a form of arthritis called Reiter’s syndrome, he was then back at home, doing his best to recover and watching a lot of TV, when he was struck by the sudden proliferation of those I Love NY T-shirts. “History had changed the meaning of that design,” he says. “It went from being a kitschy tourist thing to a sentimental solidarity thing. I thought, ‘that’s interesting.'”

So Stacy, a musician and manager of Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown, and his girlfriend, dancer Lara Tinari, set out to create an analogous garment for the second city. “We thought it would be cool to design a T-shirt for Chicago that had no meaning at all and see what people, society, and history would assign to it,” says Stacy. By Christmas 2001, Tinari had made a prototype for him as a gift, using iron-on letters and a circular shape cut from blue fabric in place of the oh-so-familiar red heart. The circle was chosen for its lack of any obvious connotations. It was simply, says Stacy, “the only color and shape that would work.” He wore the shirt around the bar that winter and a lot of people asked about it, so in May the duo placed an order for an initial production run of 144 white men’s and women’s tees. At the end of the month they dropped off samples for Lynn Davis, the buyer for the MCA Store, and days later she ordered 36, which sold quickly. Since then the shop’s done a steady business in the tees, selling as many as the shirt’s prime outlet, Danny’s.

Vintage shops Strange Cargo and Edie’s carried the shirts only briefly–they didn’t sell–and most other outlets Stacy’s approached “don’t get it.” But the blue dots are winning a street following. Indie-country siren Neko Case wore one on the cover of the debut issue of local music zine Slab, and the tees are now also available at Reckless Records. This fall Stacy and Tinari diversified, printing small batches in colors like blue and orange and adding a three-quarter-sleeve softball-style version. (All the shirts are produced by American Apparel, the LA-based “sweatshop free” garment company.) They’ve dubbed their venture Preformed and, according to Stacy, currently are looking to do other T-shirt projects that capture something that “already exists in people’s consciousness,” like Andy Warhol’s soup cans. Their riff on the New York slogan does have something in common with the pop art genre, he says, in that it’s “very simple, looks good, and it is funny.”

Before moving to Chicago in 1994, Stacy lived in New York for seven years (Tinari recently moved there temporarily to join the Twyla Tharp Dance Company). He never owned a heart shirt, he says, because “it was too much of a commitment.” He thinks of the blue dot shirts as “a conceptual art thing”–an abstract, nonliteral gesture that he would like to see Chicago accept for what it is. Stacy estimates they’ve sold nearly 600 shirts, but so far reactions have, predictably, been varied. “It really offends some people,” he says, because they just don’t get it. Some see only smiley faces and love, while others read an existential blankness into the design, offering with a sigh, “That’s exactly how I feel about Chicago.” Stacy’s take on the city? “Some days I love it, some days I don’t like it. Most of the time it’s all right.”

I . CHICAGO T-shirts sell for $17 and $20 at Danny’s (1951 W. Dickens) and Reckless Records (1532 N. Milwaukee). At the MCA Store (220 E. Chicago) they’re $20 and $28.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.