Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

Under Brooklyn's elevated JMZ subway sits a curious clothing label. On one hand, their apparel often appears in rap videos. On the other, they've released a t-shirt featuring He-Man in S&M gear. Welcome to the wonderfully warped world of Mishka.

Since the mid-2000s, Mishka NYC has been at the vanguard of popular streetwear. A cornerstone of their success has been designing clothing influenced by gonzo horror, Z-grade sci-fi, and the overall dank and stanky underbelly of pop culture. Indeed, their gear is worn with equal aplomb by metalheads and hip-hoppers (Lil Jon and Lady Sovereign have sported Mishka in music videos), and the label's past collaborators have ranged from everyone from Iron Maiden album artist Derek Riggs to erotic photographer Ellen Stagg to electro-reggae supergroup Major Lazer.

Label heads Mikhail "Mike" Bortnik and Greg Rivera were nice enough to sit down with io9 and answer some questions about Mishka's design philosophy, winter line, and how Stan Lee cold lamps it at Comic-Con:

What's the Mishka origin story?

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

Mikhail Bortnik (left): It started sometime in '03. My job I was working at was going to close, so I decided to take a stab at t-shirt design, which I had wanted to do since college. This was about the same time I met Greg. A few months into it, I realized I was in over my head so I asked Greg to join on-board and sell the line. Greg immediately came on as a full-time partner. The basic idea was we wanted to sell street wear, but we soon realized there were so many fans who were into both street wear and scifi that there was absolutely no reason we couldn't incorporate these two things.

In terms of scifi, what were your earliest influences?

Greg Rivera (right): A lot of our influences have come from B-horror films, straight-up scifi films, and comic books, especially for Mike. I was big into horror comics when I was kid and also things like The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, anything with the ironic twist at the end. Both of us are also big toy fans. Being in our early thirties, we grew up with 1980s toys, which ended up being a huge influence in our designs.

MB: One example of this influence was in our Fall 2008 Skyway Trippers collection – we tweaked an Israeli Special Forces design to include the phrase "Spaceknights" in Russian, as a homage to the old Spaceknights comic and toy line.

ROM Spaceknight allusions? That's wild. On a similar note, Mishka has a roster of kaiju-like characters who appears on a lot of your apparel – i.e. the half-serpentine, half-ursine Death Adder and the Cyco Simon skull. What's the story behind them?

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

MB: Actually the notion of bringing characters into the clothing brand goes back to metal bands. Cyco Simon is a reference to [Megadeth's ] Vic Rattlehead and Eddie from Iron Maiden, and we wanted our own. As for the Death Adder, we use our designs to tell a story with him – he's often seen teaming up with our Soviet super-soldier character.

Are we going to see an Adult Swim series with these guys anytime soon?

MB: I'll be honest, Greg and I would love to be able to a comic book or cartoon series with them.

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

What was the first sci-fi influenced Mishka piece?

GR: "They Live" was probably one of the first ones. It's hard to remember since we've had so many designs over time.

One of my early favorites was your Judge Death-inspired "Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode" logo.

MB: That was a mixing of the old Brian Bolland artwork with what people guessed [what the name of German industrial band] KMFDM stood for. KMFDM actually gave us a cease-and-desist for that one.

Really? Not the 2000 AD people?

MB: We figured we'd get something from them or Depeche Mode, but no, it was from the KMFDM people!

On a similar note, when was that moment when you said to yourselves, "Holy crap. We can't believe we just put that on a t-shirt."

MB: The "Tom of Eternia" t-shirt.

GR: Mike had the idea of doing a Tom of Finland-style shirt [featuring He-Man].

MB: If you've never hear of Tom of Finland, he's like the homoerotic artist. There was this impetus [to create this shirt] early on when someone made the comment that all we do is put naked girls and 80s cartoon characters on our shirts. Street wear on a whole seems more macho than we are as a brand, so Greg and I were like, let's do this.

GR: Our friend Robin Nishio – who is this amazing illustrator – met up with us and Mike pitched him the idea. Robin actually went and bought two big books on Tom of Finland and aped the style exactly. That was the coolest because we got so much shit from our customers because it was like, "Here's Skeletor as the master and He-Man down on his knees, gay porn style."

What sort of pieces are in the pipeline at the moment?

GR: We did this series of shirts for [the new heavy metal-themed video game] Brutal Legend and we're working with Dark Horse Comics on a project.

Oh wow, are you at the liberty to talk about that right now?

MB: Not really, but if anyone has followed our brand, you'll know that one particular Dark Horse character particularly sticks out.

As far as the Winter 2009 line goes, you seem to have strong robot theme going. You have the Terminator cyclops, the Decepticon hearse, and my favorite, the Ultron bear. Why robots this season?

MB: We've gone so far doing themes that this season just happened to be robots. This was probably one of our most rigid designs themes. The Ultron shirt's been particularly popular.

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

You guys hit up the San Diego Comic-Con this year. How was it being a street wear brand at what's been historically a comic and scifi show?

MB: We were selling some things there, but we were mostly there as fans.

GR: It's been a little calculated – and not to reveal all our secrets – but if a lot more other brands saw the potential of that market, you'd see a lot more people doing it. It's hard for us to do business, because Mike and I go and we're just geeking out. Besides going out there to meet Tim and Eric [from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!], we're both really into Japanese kaiju and we had the chance to show off our own kaiju designs.

MB: Comic-Con 2008 was my first one. We wanted to see the Lost panel, but after we saw it spilling into the street, we just said "fuck it" and went to the Battlestar Galactica panel. That crowd was pretty big too, but Dean Koontz was still speaking. So yeah, we killed two hours listening to Dean Koontz.

Any good Mishka Comic-Con party tales?

GR: We crashed an Activision party at the Hard Rock Café and saw Stan Lee. If you're at a Comic-Con party and you see Stan Lee, you know you're at the coolest party.

MB: He was just hanging out with this girl on his arm.

GR: (laughs) She looked like she was twenty years old.

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

MB: I don't if she was, like, hitting on him or he was hitting on her, but Stan Lee's exactly how you picture him. He really says "true believer."

I wouldn't want him any other way. Do you find yourselves getting calls from influences who've enjoyed your work?

MB: Other than the artists who we're huge fans of and end up working with – like Derek Riggs and L'Amour Supreme – no, not really. A lot of our influences are grumpy old men.

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

What would you say is the most quintessential Mishka design?

GR: On our first trip to Japan, we stayed in this little town outside of Tokyo and found all these old Japanese horror and sci-fi press kits. These kits would take the coolest part of the movie and turn it into poster art. We found this great Westworld kit and Mike added some comic book stuff, like Ultron and Cyborg from Teen Titans to the design. To this day, it's still one of my favorite ones.

MB: We also found this Motel Hell kit in which we used for our "Electric Funeral" shirt. We electrified the faces and it turned out great.

Alright guys - some final lightning round questions. Kim Cattrall in Big Trouble in Little China or Kirstie Alley in Wrath of Khan?

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC

MB: Kim Cattrall. I'm a Next Generation fan, what can I say.

Zardoz or Troll 2?

GR: Troll 2.

MB: Zardoz.

Would you rather have John Carpenter compose you a personal theme song or direct a movie about your life?

MB: I'd rather have him direct the movie because then he'd have to compose the film's theme song.

Shit! I hadn't thought of that loophole. Any final words to io9 readers?

GR: By all means check Mishka out - you'll definitely find something you like.

Mishka apparel is available at their website and their Brooklyn store at 350 Broadway in Williamsburg, NYC. Store photography courtesy of Dave Digioia.

Robots, Streetwear, and Gay Skeletor: An Interview with Mishka NYC