TJ Cowgill, founder and creative director of Actual Pain, has taken his interest in the Occult and mixed it with humor and unique artist abilities to conceive some of the coolest hats, t-shirts, and even Polos available on the Internet. While the brand may be a word-of-mouth only (that’s right, no advertising) streetwear clothing line, this niche company has become a cult favorite on both the West and East coasts since its 2006 inception.
Cowgill recently spoke with Artist Advocacy about the mixtapes he releases on the Actual Pain site, why he wants to keep the company rooted in his native Seattle, and counting Kanye West as a fan of the brand.
The company may be young, but it’s growing by the minute. The majority of the shirts sold out during the holiday season, and the same success would not be a surprise once the spring line drops. Cowgill even deadpanned that his next designs could be “game-changing.”
So, what drew you to clothing?
[Before 2006,] I didn’t have much interest in clothing and I didn’t know what streetwear was – or that there were brands that people would pay like $50 or $60 for a t-shirt. My friend owns the company Rockers NYC and saw a 1-inch button that I did and asked who drew it. I said me, and he hired me to draw some logos for t-shirts. That’s how I found out about that world. Then I thought I shouldn’t do $100 for a shirt, and I knew I could do some of this myself, so I started my own company.
Do you have a background in art? Did you draw a lot as a kid?
Yeah, I grew up drawing, but like no school or formal training. I barely graduated high school.
Why did you choose the name Actual Pain for your line?
Oh yeah, that was weird because that was just like a little sticker campaign I was doing at the time. I was doing street art stickers that said ACTUAL PAIN on them. I don’t know why, it just sounded like a common phrase that people say all the time, it just sounded funny to me.
Was that a tag of yours? Did graffiti influence the company at all?
It wasn’t like anything too well crafted. I was doing a lot of mushrooms at the time. One of my friends was moving to New York and had to get rid of a pound. You can imagine how much a pound was – it came in a garbage bag. That whole summer I was selling them and taking mushrooms and I think I was maybe tapping into something weird.
My friends and I had a half ounce this summer and we thought that was a lot – so a pound! You must have made serious bank.
Yeah, well that’s what I did for that summer. I was pretty much unemployed.
Now that Actual Pain is an established company, how would you describe the essence of the clothes’ look?
I would say it’s definitely rooted in Occultism, not Satanism or Witch House music. I think we reflect both sides of life equally – the lighter side and the darker side. I resent the term ‘dark brand.’
Well, there’s a humor to your line, definitely.
Yes, and that has a lot to do with how I feel Christianity has stamped out that humor and fun part of the Devil. In the past, the God Loki of the Norwegian faith was equivalent to the Devil. He was this trickster, but he was also revered as a God, and was associated with the wolf, and all kinds of cool things, but he was still respected even though he would fuck with the other gods and fuck with people. He represents part of the human experience but modern popular religion and culture shuns the prankster, if you know what I mean.
I recently did a lot of research on Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the Devil.
My friend is actually from Memphis and he brought me back a couple ounces of the dirt from that crossroads.
Do you associate with any Occult-type religion or is more of a passionate interest?
It’s just an interest. My parents divorced when I was really little, and my dad was in recovery for alcoholism and he became a born-again Christian. My mother is like a neo-Pagan witch, and she’s a shaman, and does all these other random things. The latest one is that she’s obsessed with Hawaiian mysticism, and magic. I was raised half that, and half born-again Christian so I had quite a bit of conflict as a kid regarding religion and faith so it makes sense why I read a lot about it, and tried to figure why these adults in my life were being so crazy.
Your website includes mixtapes and other things connected to music. Did you envision Actual Pain with music in mind, maybe similar to how Mishka functions?
No, I kept everything really separate at first. I’m a musician, as well, so it made sense to start to curate an artist series of mixtapes. Ours is different from Mishka’s because theirs are more DJ or hip-hop centered releases, where we will just find somebody who’s interesting, and ask them what they’re listening to. It’s almost like ours are bootlegs. We have some cool ones coming up – I’m always thinking who wouldn’t make a mixtape or what is the weirdest music that this person listens to. Take this famous person: what’s the weirdest shit they’re into. It’s really interesting to see. Because I don’t just listen to folk music or black metal – I listen to a lot of other music too.
It shows– you include mixtapes from Wavves and Pictureplane, but also stuff from WhiteRing, among others. I’ve been checking out your King Dude stuff. Does your music have any relationship with Actual Pain, or do you try to keep those two things separate?
Pretty separate. With Actual Pain, it’s primarily my designs and everything is developed in-house conceptually, but my wife, Emily, and our employee, Ozma, are essential. I show them all the designs and stuff, but for King Dude – it’s just me. Thematically, though, Actual Pain and King Dude are the same as both are rooted in Occultism.
Did you know that Kanye West wore an Actual Pain hat at the Jeremy Scott fashion show last year?
Yeah, there would be no way for me NOT to know about that.
Did his camp contact you beforehand, or did you find out later?
His stylist placed an order – and I was surprised he liked the brand. That was one of the most surprising things.
Did he spread your audience at all?
It definitely opened our market to a more mainstream, or, well, more rap and hip-hop kind of group. There are entire websites dedicated to what [Kanye West] wears, and I didn’t even know that at the time. We actually had to re-produce a lot of that hat, in particular, because it sort of was everywhere. It’s our logo hat so it worked really well. We’ve been doing that logo for a while and it’s become sort of synonymous with the brand. I definitely don’t mind.
What future designs do you think we can see from Actual Pain?
There are a couple game-changers in the spring line, which I hope makes some of my peers in the industry go ‘Awww fuck, why didn’t we think of that?’
Will people be surprised, or is this the next level of what you’ve already done?
A little bit of both. The collection is pretty diverse. We’re including more styles of clothing, such as the Polo shirts we recently put up. I think people will be really excited, plus we have such a loyal fan base that it’s been an amazing trip for us as a company. We can do what we want and people respond really well to it. It gives me a lot of confidence in designing.
Of your clothing, what’s your personal favorite design or item? I love the Marilyn crew.
Usually my favorites are the worst sellers [laughs], but you know I like them all because I make them all. I’m trying to look as we speak – I really like the “I Am Magical Mother Fucker.” There are so many because we design throughout the entire year. In the past, I felt like the ‘True Love Never Di’s” was kind of perfect. It wasn’t our best seller, but some of my favorites are always the stuff that is too weird for buyers.
And you even design the jewelry?
Yup, 99% of it. Noel, that guy who was in the photo with the polo, was interning for us and I still hire him occasionally to do work for us. He did the Skinner T-shirts and he actually illustrated the Immortal Mouse t-shirts.
How’d you get licensing for the Immortal Mouse design?
It’s not technically a copy. It would be pretty crazy if they came after us with a lawsuit over that. I look more at it like Pop Art. If were printing actual Walt Disney illustrations then I would be concerned, but we drew that and it was a specific thing. It was like a comment on the state of popular black metal so it’s a funny joke – it’s actually art to me.
I’ve noticed that people wear Actual Pain stuff in nightlife settings.
Yeah, it’s cool. I hope the cooler people like it, but like anything – it’s harder to control if it gets bigger, and we don’t do any promo for anybody ever really.
It’s really just a word-of-mouth thing?
Yeah, our website gets a lot of traffic. If you see somebody wearing it, they most likely bought it online which is really cool.
Are you thinking about expanding at all – maybe opening a second warehouse in the east coast or in another country?
Yeah we’re always thinking about that but we’re pretty firmly rooted in Seattle – we love Seattle. I feel like the city has made me who I am, and I don’t really plan on leaving. People often reach a certain point and want to move to LA or New York, but it can leave vacuums of creativity in other cities. If you’re doing a good creative thing that’s respected around the world, to a certain degree, then why not stay there and help make that city better?