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A CNY art teacher plans to take his love of bootleg T-shirts legal with the NCAA’s NIL deals – syracuse.com

Jeff Allen is an art teacher who makes T-shirts in his spare time. He's been making Grateful Dead art since the mid-1980s.
It was 1985, Jeff Allen’s senior year at Westhill Senior High School. He had been a fan of The Grateful Dead for a while, and he started combining his passion for art and music in his class projects. Allen had been to a few Dead concerts around New York state with his friends. He usually hand painted about five shirts for each one, just for his group to wear and show off to other Deadheads.
One Saturday morning before The Grateful Dead’s 1985 show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Allen and a friend bought boxes of shirts from the local Champion store. They printed as many shirts as they could afford. Allen sold about half of them, before the cops came and burned the rest.
That was the first in a long line of many bootleg operations centered around music fandom.
“I’ve always figured out a way to monetize my artwork, not just do it for fun,” Allen said. “The idea of making money on it, as a capitalist and as an entrepreneur, that’s part of what I get out of my art as well.”
More than 35 years later, Allen, who’s been the art teacher at his alma mater of Westhill Senior High for 23 years, hopes to merge his love of art with his love of Syracuse sports. Now that new NCAA rules allow college players to profit from their “name, image and likeness,” he sees a chance for mutual benefit.
Before the new “NIL” rule, Allen made fan shirts of SU basketball players like Paschal Chukwu and Marek Dolezaj. He said the players saw the shirts and liked them, but the NCAA’s strict rules against student athletes making money meant they couldn’t work with him.
Going into the 2022-23 basketball season, Allen hopes to partner with senior guard Joseph Girard III to make T-shirts. Allen’s ideas for designs center around making a “mountain man” character out of Girard, a native of Glens Falls, New York.
Allen’s ideas for sports designs mainly come from word association and music references. His experiences of northeast New York bring rural images to mind. A well-meaning caricature of Girard as a tough outdoorsman encompassed Allen’s thoughts of Glens Falls and an aspect of Girard’s playing style.
He wants to focus on the fan favorites and the local icons, not the go-for-pro players.
“The stars are gonna get snapped up by bigger entities,” Allen said. “But some of the guys showing up at Syracuse still have the potential to make a few thousand bucks, maybe more.”
Allen himself played football as a walk-on at the University of Virginia, earning a scholarship his senior year, so he has an affinity for scrappy players with colorful personalities.
“I think the guys on the bench should have shirts, too,” Allen said.
He recalled Sonny Spera, a popular benchwarmer for Syracuse University basketball during Allen’s high school years. Despite not getting quality playing time, Spera would get cheers every time the team was ahead enough to put him in.
“[Spera] was a great guy, he’d come in and hustle, but he wasn’t like a top-caliber athlete,” Allen said. “He could have sold thousands of shirts. He had this floppy hair, just—everybody loved Sonny Spera.”
Allen has a natural sense for what people like, which makes him good at guerilla marketing. On his Facebook page, he’ll post a picture of a sticker taped to a random place in Syracuse, a street sign or landmark in the background giving a hint to prospective treasure hunters.
T-shirts bearing Allen’s designs will also appear on statues around the West Side, with similar Facebook posts promising them free to whoever finds them first.
Shawn Hannon, manager of the Rail Line event space near Armory Square, hired Allen to design T-shirts for events held there. Since they started working together, he’s come to know Allen as an impressive force of self-promotion.
Hannon remembers Allen throwing his own art show at the Rail Line, promoting it with a band and the venue’s bar, and drawing in nearly 200 people.
“His work touches a few different areas – Grateful Dead, animals and outdoorsman stuff and some sports,” Hannon said. “He’s very charismatic, people like to hang around him.”
Music is a big part of Allen’s artwork. His love for Dead-style bands shines in his bright-color, high-contrast style. Allen’s spin on The Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” skull containing the Tipperary Hill stop light is popular among people in the neighborhood.
Allen live-draws at concerts, too, taking quick sketches of bands as they’re performing and sometimes creating a larger work afterward. Those sell well, but it’s the T-shirts he’s most interested in.
“The T-shirts have made my artwork a lot more accessible,” Allen said. “It’s a lot easier for people to drop $20 than $200.”
Allen’s house is just five minutes away from Westhill Senior High. His basement is part man cave, part bohemian art studio. His artwork hangs on racks, sits in stacks on the floor or stands against the wall. The only free spaces are a wooden table and cabinet that look like they’re from 1890.
The walls and ceiling are unfinished cinder block and wooden rafters, cutting a space that is wholly unpretentious. A piece of wood nailed between studs is tagged with spray paint experiments. A cluttered screen printing setup hidden in shadow radiates the roguish glory of bootleg T-shirts.
“I like being by myself,” Allen said. “I like doing my own thing, I don’t like people stepping on my toes. I can be stubborn.”
While he’s never run into legal trouble regarding his artwork, Allen has been asked to stop selling his products twice. Once was at the Westcott Theater, when a tour manager objected to a concert poster being sold inside the venue lobby.
The other instance was that first time he ever sold shirts, at the 1985 Grateful Dead concert at SPAC.
Two cops showed up at the minivan where Allen was hawking his screen-printed, Champion brand T-shirts. At first, he thought they were customers.
He said things took a turn when one of them scooped up all the shirts he had while the other made sure Allen didn’t stop them – Allen’s first batch of T-shirts ended up in a burn pile with other trademark infringements confiscated from fans around the concert venue that day.
It was a tough lesson, but Allen knows now to get a venue’s approval before selling. He legitimized selling Bob Weir merch for a concert at the Landmark by being under Funk ‘n Waffles roof, for instance.
Ultimately, it’s the venues and the sense of community they provide that keeps Allen invested in the sports and music scene.
“If a painting’s between going to some guy’s house or some bar that wants it, the bar’s getting it, for sure,” Allen said. “Because it’s out there and people will see it. And it’ll be more fun, I’ll get to see it when I go in there.”
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