When graphic designer Jeremy Dean showed up to his first Dead & Company concert in 2016, he was certain he was walking into a sting operation. At the time, he was a few years into running a popular Grateful Dead bootleg clothing brand, so Dead & Co. guitarist John Mayer's invitation to join him backstage at the BB&T Pavilion seemed too good to be true.
"I thought I was busted," Dean, 46, of Montgomery County, says. "I said, 'I'm not going to show up to you with a full team ready to take me down, right?' He goes, '[No,] I promise you.' "
Mayer wasn't waiting with a team of copyright lawyers. Instead, he was hoping to cop some of Dean's "The Wonders of Black Flag" gear — a line of clothing that unexpectedly mashes together the trippy imagery of the Grateful Dead with the stylings of hardcore punk stalwarts Black Flag.
Released mostly as T-shirts and hoodies, WOBF items often combine the bar logo for which Black Flag is famous with the Grateful Dead's "stealie" skull image. Throw in some other references to Black Flag releases, like Wasted … Again and the Dead's Bertha skeleton or marching bear characters, imagine what they'd look like on bad acid, and you've got an idea of Dean's output.
Designed in Montco and printed in Delaware, the items typically sell out minutes after he announces them to his 23,000 Instagram followers at @deansnuts — his last run sold out in seven minutes. There have even been resellers offering his clothing on eBay, where a single hoodie that initially sold for $60 has fetched a price as high as $250.
Dean decided to hook Mayer up. Mayer did not respond to a request for comment, but he has been spotted on stage wearing Dean's designs.
As a result of their Camden meetup, Dean began making official merchandise for both Mayer and Dead & Co. Mayer worked with him on graphics for his "Love on the Weekend" advertising materials and his Search for Everything album cover and merchandise, as well as for his "Controlled Danger" stand-up tour with Dave Chappelle. Dead & Co. have featured Dean's work on their most recent fall and summer tours.
Dean doesn't consider himself a Deadhead — his roots are more in hardcore punk than jam band culture. He says it's been fun to take the official Dead brand "out for a spin," but he can't quite tear himself away from his bootleg work just yet.
Neither can actual Deadheads. The Grateful Dead, after all, are undergoing a moment of renewed cultural interest, due in part to the popularization of bootleg Dead fashion, as the Wall Street Journal, Esquire, GQ, and Hypebeast have noted. Other brands include Moon Life Clothing, Philly local Mason Warner's From the Lot, and Online Ceramics, which has also created official Dead & Co. gear. Dean's punkier take is among the most visible today.
"I feel almost partially responsible," he says. "Maybe it's this catalyst for some people, like, 'I got this shirt, maybe I should listen to the Dead.' "
Dean didn't set out to create a new generation of fans for the Grateful Dead or Black Flag. He is a longtime graphic designer, currently freelancing, who has worked as an art director at Urban Outfitters, creative director at Anthropologie, and director of print graphic design at Victoria's Secret Pink. He has designed materials for the Rolling Stones and Elton John, St. Vincent and Shawn Mendes. He also operates DES, a T-shirt brand also known as Double Edged Sword, and House 33, a relaunched version of his clothing line with Delaware design studio and type foundry House Industries.
A North Wales native, Dean cut his teeth in design as a punk kid skateboarding around the suburbs in the 1980s. He became hooked on punk after catching hardcore shows at such now-defunct venues as Philly's Club Pizazz and the Revival, City Gardens in Trenton, and Reading's Unisound, where he saw stalwarts of the genre like Bad Brains, MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), and 7 Seconds. He started designing to be a part of punk culture. "I wasn't musically inclined at all, so it was my way of being involved in a culture that I really appreciated," he says.
It didn't hurt, Dean says, that he spent a lot of time at his dad's Montco print shop and advertising agency, where he picked up design skills on analog equipment like stat cameras and hot wax rollers.
After graduating from Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Dean found work designing album covers and merchandise for punk bands via the Delaware record label Jade Tree. His work came to define the aesthetic of several influential punk bands, including Philly's Kid Dynamite and Virginia's Strike Anywhere, as well as New York instrumental rock band Turing Machine.
Around 2009, Dean says, he started seeing photos of Black Flag guitarist and songwriter Greg Ginn — a noted Deadhead — wearing Grateful Dead merchandise, as well as one photo of a bootleg T-shirt that read, "We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature," a line from the Dead's "Sugar Magnolia." Dean liked the phrase and was inspired to combine the Black Flag and Grateful Dead logos to make the first WOBF graphic, which he stowed away until 2011.
Even during his time in punk rock, Dean says, he noticed his compadres trading in mosh pits for Dead lots. Many local punk fans around Dean made their way to Dead tours in the late 1980s, when the band found mainstream success thanks to their hit single "Touch of Grey." It made sense, he says, considering how DIY-oriented both punk and Dead culture are. But the Dead didn't get Dean's attention until the early 2000s, when he finally became a fan.
A friend who owed Dean a favor printed the first shirts in 2011. Dean gave many of them away because he thought of the project as a joke. But they took off.
Around 2016, the year Dean met with Mayer, the line became a coveted streetwear brand. Runs, Dean says, typically number about 100 pieces, and are announced online via his personal Instagram page — as well as a backup page, @TwinAstronauts, and a newsletter — often just hours before a release.
Why the line has been so successful, Dean says, is anybody's guess. When he launched it there was no larger cultural movement around the Dead or their merchandise. But as he continued making shirts, a subculture of bootleg gear began to crop up around the band, which Dean today credits with the Dead's newfound popularity.
"Some of the guys in Dead & Co., especially John, realize that this bootleg T-shirt business is helping drive the fans," he says. "It injects a little younger life into that world."
Despite that popularity, don't expect to find a big footprint for the brand online. Rather than leave up a website every day, Dean activates the WOBF online store only during releases and shuts it down once they sell out. That way, he says, the brand can be something of a moving target — an important aspect, considering the legal gray area in which his bootleg-inspired Ts exist.
"I think that there's a possibility to do something else on a larger scale, in a more legal way, at some point," Dean says. "I can't really let my foot off the brake with this, which keeps it fun. There are still some illegal parts. If it's fully legal, it kind of takes the fun out of it a little."