“I’m sorry, I haven’t talked to anyone in a few days, and I’m just vomiting words on you.”
Katie Heath, the eternally deadpan and hilariously sarcastic mastermind behind the FLUNK LIFE t-shirt brand, apologizes to me on a recent, cross-country catch-up call.
“I live alone now, which is why I’m crazier,” Katie explains. “I recently moved into a huge place, which FLUNK LIFE did kind of pay for, in an old persons community. I don’t really get to party now…I think if I were Andrew WK-dumb for parties I’d be a happier person.” But instead of living a party-hard lifestyle, Katie’s busy filling orders for her t-shirts, having sold over 2,500 since she opened up her online store three years ago.
Katie Heath and I met in Chicago years before FLUNK LIFE began, brought together by her weekly, eclectic DJ night at Innjoy. Katie introduced me to T. Rex. She worships Alice Cooper. She claims her life was ruined, or at least forever altered, by the Ramones song “Endless Vacation.” When I last saw her in her relatively new Portland hometown, she brought me to a tiki-slash-karaoke bar, introduced me to the hilarity of Party Down South, and treated me to non-stop chuckles thanks to her side-mouthed quips. In short, Katie is an original, and she fucking rules.
When I saw Katie in Portland about a year ago, we sat on the floor of a small room with off-white carpeting and scuffed walls in a house she shared with roommates I never met, eating donuts and shooting the shit. That tiny room was FLUNK LIFE headquarters. Along one wall, a clothing rack was stuffed with black, white, and gray shirts that boasted Katie’s signature slogans: THERE’S NO LIFE LIKE LOW LIFE, GO TO BED WITH MOTORHEAD, EAT SHIT AND DIE, PUSSY BUILDS STRONG BONES, and of course, the first FLUNK LIFE shirt and Katie’s permanent favorite, HIRE ME FIRE ME WHATEVER.
“That’s my OG,” Katie says. “It’s kind of dark, because I was fired twice the month I first made that. Every time I got fired, I always thought it was quite unfair. I didn’t know why. It was like, ‘Why me?!?!’” Katie pauses then adds, “Except for one time, when I got a job as a graphic designer with no experience and got caught. Turns out you can’t just wing that shit.”
Like a true babe, Katie not only bit her thumb at the potentially ego-crushing ousting nine-to-five reality gave her, she also proudly raised her middle finger and founded a t-shirt brand that celebrates a degenerate lifestyle, partially inspired by the 70s badasses in fuzzy-lettered sassy shirts that came before us. Now, Katie manages to live and thrive in Portland, subsisting on FLUNK LIFE profit and the beaucoup bucks she makes as a wedding DJ.
“I used to DJ for fun here at bars and stuff, but it usually cost me money because my bar tab exceeded my pay for the night,” she says. “DJing weddings can be fun at times, but mostly I’m, like, shaking. I’m just not chill at all. Everyone’s like, ‘This is a really serious thing.’ Like, ‘The President is here! The President is here!’ They’re all so anxious. But I think it’s a humble and good decision to do things you don’t want to do. I’d be too spoiled if I didn’t do something I didn’t like.”
In-between Katie’s busy schedule researching what country music is popular these days for an upcoming love ceremony and cutting out letters for her next production, I caught up with her to talk about FLUNK LIFE’s origins, being a FLUNKIE, her ideas about success, and what’s next.
How did FLUNK LIFE start?
I used to work door at this venue called East End in Portland. It was quite boring to just sit there all night. I just started showing up to work with shit ironed on me for fun. There’s a store here called Scrap where you can just buy random crap like pill bottles. I found some iron-on letters there and started playing with those. A lot of odd shit came up, including HIRE ME FIRE ME WHATEVER.
And now I pay normal rent, but back when I first started, I got super lucky with cheap rent. Which totally helped me avoid a 9-5 job I didn’t want. My money works in Portland, but it doesn’t really work anywhere else. Portland is like the movie Toys. When you move here, you get food stamps, you get Etsy…that was just encouraged upon me.
What’s a FLUNKIE?
The word FLUNKIE…Do you remember the website Smoking Gun? I’m 29, so I’m about to date myself with “ancient internet” references. Anyways, they post public records like obnoxious band riders, unsavory shit. I think it was 2007…Conan O’Brien had a stalker priest. And one of his letters to Conan was posted on there:
“THIS IS YOUR PRIEST-STALKER AGAIN, THE ONE WHO HAS BEEN TRACKING YOU THROUGH SPACE AND TIME, FROM MATHER HOUSE TO ST. LAWRENCE TO THE MAJESTIC. I PAID $250 TO FLY DOWN TO NYC YESTERDAY JUST TO HAVE A SPOT IN THE AUDIENCE, IN THE DIMMING HOPE THAT YOU MIGHT FINALLY ACKNOWLEDGE ME…I’M TOLD BY SOME OF THOSE OFFICIOUS LITTLE USHER PEOPLE THAT YOU’RE OVERBOOKED AND TO GET THE FUCK OFF THE PREMISES!! IS THIS THE WAY YOU TREAT YOUR MOST DANGEROUS FANS???…YOU OWE ME BIG TIME PAL. I WANT A PUBLIC CONFESSION BEFORE I EVEN CONSIDER GIVING YOU ABSOLUTION. OR ELSE A SPOT ON YOUR COUCH. I’M THROUGH WAITING IN BOGUS LINES ON THE MEZZANINE. I SURE HOPE THIS COMPLAINT GETS THROUGH THE NEXT LINE OF FLUNKIES–TO YOU SIR. AND REMEMBER, FRANK COSTELLO ONCE DODGED A BULLET IN YOUR BUILDING AND SO CAN YOU?”
I thought it was art! I still do. It’s so bonkers and angry. Did the idea of a FLUNKIE that gets shot by a psycho priest because they showed up for work the wrong day resonate with me? Sure. And I didn’t realize the Late Night connection until just now, but I found out about FLUNKY THE CLOWN a couple years ago, too.
Yes. This also resonates with me.
I think a FLUNKIE is an underdog. I think a FLUNKIE was told “IT IS WHAT IT IS” a lot. Sometimes shit sucks and you don’t want to hear advice. It’s about being self-deprecating in the most optimistic of ways. My slogan used to be ‘At least your shitty life looks good on t-shirts’…the further I get into this, the more I worry that maybe not everyone is in on the joke.
A lot of FLUNK LIFE’s slogans are inspired by vintage shirts. How do you find these old photos and shirts?
I find shirts online or because old friends shoot me ideas. Also, I found all these old Easyriders magazines [gestures towards a pile of biker mags]. These are my brother’s. He doesn’t know that I have these! My parents moved, and I found all of these as I was clearing out the house. They’re like Playboy for bikers.
Not everything comes from vintage shirts, though.
86’ED FROM LIFE is an original, and it’s great because it has asshole radar built into it. You have to have worked in the food industry at some point in your life to get it, and if you haven’t, you haven’t really worked a day in your life. MANIFEST ECSTASY is another original. People think that’s positive, and it’s not. [Laughs] It’s not, like, make your own fun! It’s like make drugs! I just hope people aren’t interpreting that positively. [Laughs] DAIN BRAMAGE was honestly from my brain. I promise you, that was the first thing I said when I was growing up. Dave Grohl’s first band was called that, which I knew, but…we’re going to have to share that phrase. GO TO BED WITH MOTORHEAD comes from Todd Novak, the head honcho of HoZac Records. I have to tip my hat so hard to him. He’s always giving me things to do or think about…planting ideas. PILL POPPIN SEX FREAK is a Bob’s Burgers reference, perverts! That’s, like, straight up what the mom said at some point. I just heard that and thought it was funny.
Are there any new or rejected shirt ideas you’d be willing to share with us?
I am trying to come up with more original ideas. I think I’ve saturated all the classics. I used to do hours and hours of searching for old shirts, and that was really fun at first, but I think I need to do something new. Also, it’s funny to find all the other t-shirt brands that are doing something similar – Bandit Brand, Ladies Love Outlaws…We’re just ripping each other off constantly.
But I’m so scared! All my thoughts are getting worse and worse. They’re getting really dark-drunk. [Laughs] I’ve got pages and pages of dirty things. They’re all, like, riddles. Let me consult this dirty notebook. I’m, like, reading to you from my diary! [Laughs] Here we go! There’s KEEP ON FUCKING in Grateful Dead font. My homie Jonnie Monroe [of UNDERLORDS TAKE ACID] came up with that one. I ended up making her a PUSSY DELIVERY MAN shirt instead. Originally I was going to make one that said I’M NOT GONNA DELIVER THIS PUSSY LIKE A PIZZA, but I shortened it because that’s a lot of ironing.
We got $5 A SECOND because that’s how much we’re going to charge to be alive. Someone gave me one that’s like NO PUT TO SLEEP because that’s what they put on animals at the hospital so they don’t put them to sleep—like a note. [Laughs] I’M NOT DRUNK, I’M DUMB. That’s for my friend Cade. That’s like a blanket statement for everyone in Portland. There’s some geography for you. [Laughs] SMILE IF I’LL SEE YOU IN HELL. I was going to do that one until I got all scared that I was dying from all this health shit I recently went through, then I didn’t want to jinx it. There’s also SCUM LORD. I was talked out of doing SLUM LORD.
Everything else is, like, gibberish. One says I’M COMING…?!?! [Laughs] I don’t know! I swear to you my brain is on. So many of these have “fuck” in them, too. I’m tired of blurring out my shirts on Etsy!
But I think I got the money-maker, and this is purely money…I need money. AND it’s not a swear word so I can actually sell it places! [Laughs] FIESTA FOREVER, like in the Lionel Richie song, “All Night Long.”
What’s a typical day in FLUNK LIFE like?
FLUNK LIFE is very contradictory now that I’m working my ass off. [Laughs] The process is really irritating. I have a $400 printer now for the letters, which is the cheapest they have for this. So I have power now. I used to only be able to do this because my friend Chester had a printer that he would let me use for free. He has a company called Ship A Dick, sending cardboard cut-outs of dicks to people. That’s his side business. He was like, “Katie, your ideas aren’t stupid! Look at XYZ things I do!” And he’s right, and he’s lovely.
So yeah, I print the fuzzy letters, then I have to peel these things and cut them. But the bitch is placing them on the shirt and seeing if they’re straight or not. And it sounds dumb, but when you do that 400-500 times, and you have tendencies to have a lazy eye, they just don’t hang straight. I have really terrible posture from this. I need to start exercising. [Laughs] I used to be in all the photos of my shirts online. I’m way behind the scenes now. I’ve got bags on bags. Working hard, your face shows it. And when I wear lipstick, I look like I’ve been punched in the mouth.
I’ve been saying this for a while now, but I’ve got to start screenprinting. I need to because I think that FIESTA FOREVER shirt is going to sell. [Laughs]
What’s the response to FLUNK LIFE been like?
The response has been surprisingly super positive, even sweet. Sometimes I feel my Grinch heart growing when I think about it. I’ve gotten a lot of wholesale inquiries from shops, but right now I realistically can’t keep up with orders. It’s just me, on my floor, making them one by one. I do sell to one store right now (Hello Holiday) and that’s about as far as I can go at the moment.
Some cool feedback I’ve received is that the shirts are hotter in person than their profiles online. The flock lettering is a happy surprise to some. It’s fuzzy like a velvet painting. You’ll want to touch yourself. I’d say people are mostly stoked. Except this one lady. She told me she was Googling biker clothes and found my store. She was pissed the THERE’S NO LIFE LIKE LOW LIFE shirt seemingly “equates bikers with low lifes.” Told me, “Shame on you, you prejudiced ass.” So that was, uh, real misunderstood.
Nylon magazine somehow found me and included me in this blog. My favorite part is when they say that I have “the chillest attitude in the biz”…When I read that, I was laying in my bed fermenting, super gross, thinking to myself, “Maybe too chill?”
Does FLUNK LIFE feel successful to you now? How has it affected your life?
I’m in the middle right now of knowing whether I did a good or bad thing. It could go either way. [Laughs] It totally could! I did the math, and I can afford what I’m doing. I also have evidence that others have done far more stupid things and got paid for it.
But I’m really grateful that I finally have a project to work on, even though it’s pretty superficial. I used to do art and all of these other thoughtful things. Now I just make sassy shirts. It’s fun, but I have to be so sassy all the time. It’s exhausting! Being the puppet master behind this sometimes fucks me up emotionally. I was having a lot of fun, fun, fun doing this, but then at one point it was like, “There’s Katie, she’s got words on her shirt.” I went to San Francisco recently, and I couldn’t see the bottom of my suitcase because all my clothes are black. I was like, “I must be depressed.” [Laughs] It’s fucked up. But today, I wore the BITCH BITCH BITCH shirt. I’m coming back into the world.
What, ultimately, does FLUNK LIFE success look like to you?
Success for me would involve having free time. Like “increased opportunities for leisure.” It’s summer in Portland, and I’ve been to the river once. I’m that sad sack who can never hang out, so people stopped asking. The letters don’t peel themselves. I work 80 hours a week so I don’t have to work 40 hours at a 9-5. It’s a classic scenario invented by ego, really. My design method is: Destroy your body and don’t ask for help. So success would be getting some help. Like a young, able-bodied maniac with perfect posture and 20/20 vision. Oh, and mean like a bad dog. I see myself more as an organizer in the long-term.
As far as success right now…I need more exposure! That’s hard because I don’t know how to go about that. I need some fucking tips because I throw myself under the bus pretty hard. I love to throw myself under the bus. That’s the crux of the whole thing…I called myself FLUNK LIFE, so I guess I’m getting what I asked for.
Yeah, but you have an army of FLUNKIES behind you, don’t you?
I am building this legion of bad high school girls. I feel kind of responsible! It’s weird! These girls seem young, and they’re posting all this crass shit I make. I mean, I sell the ACID QUEEN shirt like, “Angry teenage youth leaders, grovel before your queen!” so it’s not a coincidence. But it’s interesting. I feel responsible, like a bad mom. [Laughs] I’m a bad mom to these teenagers!
Sometimes I get orders with PO boxes and cool names in California, and I look them up. I think I just sold the I’M A FUCKING ALIEN shirt to some girl from AMC’s Freak Show. I’ve only sold, like, five of those. I’m just hoping someone needs it more than I do.
And I can’t really talk about this, but a network just bought some BITCH BITCH BITCH shirts from me that may be for an Alice Cooper show of some kind…which would be kind of an amazing full circle.
Is there an ideal FLUNK LIFE customer?
Anyone who gets and tells jokes! IF YOU CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, FUCK YOU!