An Interview with Mark Brittain of MoonDoggys Clothing

While Belfast Beyond typically focuses on local street art and graffiti, it’s almost impossible not to consider other areas of counterculture in the city; so with that in mind, today we chat with Mark Brittain, founder of Belfast based streetwear brand MoonDoggys Clothing; keep scrolling for an in depth look at his design process, his work with hip-hop charity 5th Element NI, and why he thinks streetwear and graffiti are so intrinsically linked.

Will you introduce yourself?

What’s up, I’m Mark Brittain, the founder of MoonDoggys Clothing and member of 5th Element NI charity.

Thank you so much for asking me to do this interview!

Will you tell us a bit about the backstory of MDC? What inspired you to create it and where did the name come from?

The idea for a clothing brand came to me back in 1998 when I was 14, at the time I was wearing a lot of Hip Hop brands like FUBU, Ecko Unltd and Triple Five Soul, with my baggy jeans always overlapping a pair of skate shoes or basketball boots. American street culture really appealed to me and it’s aesthetic formed my personal style and the lens through which I would imagine my own brand. This look was quite against the grain in 90s Belfast, with most steering towards Kappa tracksuits and football tops or Levis 501 jeans and a Kickers jumper, but I enjoyed going in an unconventional direction and being different. There weren’t many shops in Belfast that sold clothing I would wear back then; most of my wardrobe came from Apache or Point Seven 5ive, but sometimes you would get lucky in TK Maxx.

Back then I played Ice Hockey and came across a 1993 movie called “Airborne” (starring a young Jack Black and Seth Green) about a surfer from California who has to go to live with his Aunt and Uncle in Cincinnati, where there’s no coastline, and therefore, no surfing. In school his new classmates were giving him a hard time until he earns their respect by competing in a deadly race on rollerblades. Looking back now it’s a really cheesy film, but I loved it because there was ice hockey and roller hockey in it. Throughout the film one of the characters kept calling him “Moondoggy” as an insult, and with no idea what it meant, I adopted Moondoggy as a nickname for a while. I later decided it would be a terrible nickname, but could be a memorable brand name, and that’s where the name MoonDoggys Clothing came from. 

The first clothing I ever put out under the name MoonDoggys were indigo dyed carpenter jeans. My Granny used to take me to every car boot sale she passed on the way to and from her caravan and it was at one of these car boot sales that I came across a stall selling these jeans for a fiver a pair, so I negotiated with the seller and walked away with their entire inventory of 10 pairs for £3 each. When I got home that Sunday afternoon I put a pair of the jeans on, rushed straight to my PC and printed out paper hang tags with a graffiti style character on a skateboard and the word MoonDoggys on them, tied them to the belt loops on the jeans and went door to door to see if I could sell them to my friends for £8 a pair. I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit; I remember getting my Dad to take me to Makro wholesalers when I was in primary school to buy sweets in bulk so I could sell them to my classmates.

At 14 I didn’t think I could launch a full scale brand without going to factories in China or Turkey for mass production, this would have been way out of reach for me both financially and in terms of scope. The mindset of people around me was that you couldn’t do things like that, you weren’t supposed to dream big, we were taught to just be realistic and study hard in school so you can get a good job. With this inherited limited mindset I decided to pursue other avenues and went on to study computer science after school, and tried my hand at graphic design, web development and photo/videography as my creative outlets. Around this time I also got my first car and found a passion for modified cars, so I channeled my energy into a website dedicated to modified car enthusiasts called, we traveled all over Ireland covering car shows and cruises, putting our own, and other people’s cars on our stands at shows, and built a community on the website’s forums. 

In 2012 I decided to look into finally making MoonDoggys Clothing a reality and did quite a bit of research online to find possible suppliers for blank items of clothing, woven labels to brand the necks of the garments, and of course the equipment to actually print the designs onto them. I was already familiar with the design process and the heat transfer printing method from some items we had made for MaxedNI over the years so I decided to start with that. After purchasing the plotter, heat press, some blank t-shirts and some rolls of clothing vinyl I set out on the journey. There were some mistakes early on but over the next few weeks I perfected the process and started making tees and hoodies for friends and family, I had also ordered some embroidered snapback caps and backpacks from my supplier with the order of blanks because I couldn’t embroider them myself.

For the next few years I operated at a hobbyist level, making tees and hoodies for friends or people who contacted me on Instagram or Facebook as needed, it was just last year that I decided to turn MoonDoggys Clothing into a proper company and filed all the necessary paperwork to register as a legitimate business. Unfortunately it’s not at the stage where I can fully support myself with it yet, so I’ll have to keep my “day job” for now!

From your initial idea, to getting your design on a garment, how does your process work?

Usually I’ll have an idea for a design and just jump right into Photoshop or Illustrator to start creating the shapes or trying different fonts or colours, occasionally I’ll sketch it out on paper first, but most times I just jump in and start digitally. Once I’m happy with the layout of the design I’ll separate the colours, the printing method can only do one solid block of colour at a time and you have to layer the colours to make up your design, so each colour must be isolated as it’s own image file. From there the image is pulled into another program to be reversed and converted to an svg path, and from there onto yet another program to send it to the plotter to be cut out.

Once the plotter has cut the design into the roll of vinyl you trim the piece off the roll and move onto the weeding process, this removes the negative space that you don’t want transferred to the garment with a small picking tool (essentially a dart with no flight). Weeding can sometimes be the longest part of the process depending how complex your design is; some of my previous designs could take up to 45 mins to weed, more recently I’ve tried to design with this in mind to speed up the process.

Skeet89 in the Rep MDC tee

After weeding each piece of vinyl needed you do a pre-press on the garment to smooth out any wrinkles and remove excess moisture then place the first layer face down and make sure you’re happy with the placement (usually involves a ruler and a bit of repositioning). From there it goes into the heat press for 10-15 seconds at 180 degrees Celsius, after peeling the backing film off you’re either finished on a single colour design, or ready to add the next layer/colour. After the final layer has been applied I usually press the garment for another 5 seconds without backing film to make sure it’s sealed.

I’m so used to the process now that I forgot how complex it is until I started trying to explain it! I’m planning to start outsourcing some of the garments to be screen printed and embroidered, it’s getting harder to keep up with the demand doing everything in-house and there are less design restrictions with these other methods of decoration. Recently I’ve also added a sublimation printer to my arsenal which should unlock a lot more possibilities for new products including mugs, mouse pads, coasters, bottle openers and plenty of other items. Sublimation also makes it possible to do full colour designs including photo prints, so expect to see some of these available soon.

We loved your recent collaboration tee with Joke from Derry’s AMC crew; how did that come about? And are there any other writers you’d like to collab with?

Thank you! I’m really happy with the design Joke put together for the tee, it’s been really popular with the customers too. Joke reached out to me on Instagram with the idea to collab on a tee and I was stoked on the idea after following his work for the past 5 years or so. He designed it in Procreate on the iPad and sent it thru to me to prepare it for the printing process, I knew right away it would look great on the tee and we decided on the colourway together, of course Joke got the first tee off the press! I have had a few other collabs over the years including two from Belfast based writer Web and local tattoo artist Walross who works out of Joker Tattoo in Belfast. Recently I printed some tees for Shuk graffiti artist to sell too, he’s another great writer and was a pleasure to work with. I love the collaboration process, artists will bring fresh ideas to the table, many of which I would never have come up with on my own so I’d definitely be open to working with more graff writers, tattoo artists and street artists in the future on designs.

Joke AMC collab tee

We’ve spotted a few writers (especially the FAKrew) shout out MDC in their pieces; why do you think there’s such a strong link between graffiti and streetwear? And do you write/paint as well?

Yeah, I’m always stoked to see a shout out in a writer’s piece, I never ask the writers to add them so it’s always a pleasant surprise when I see one. I think the first one was Web from the FAKrew on the peace wall in Belfast, I had gone to watch and take some photos and video clips while they were painting and when I went back over to Web’s piece near the end it said MoonDoggys, I actually used it for the Handstyle tee design a couple of years later. It was actually Web and Noka who invited me along to watch and meet the other writers in the FAKrew and some of the guests who were painting with them on the peace wall that day including legends like Rask, Vans The Omega and Brus. I’ve known Web and Noka for years and they’re great guys and ever better artists!

There’s always been a strong link between graffiti and streetwear, I think Shawn Stussy really helped to cement the graffiti aesthetic into street culture and fashion. There was a big trend for graffiti style characters on jeans, hoodies and t-shirts back in the early to mid 90s with Eclipse jeans and Spliffy jackets being a big part of the rave culture in the UK, I remember wearing them as a kid in primary school. In the states the Shirt Kings popularised the custom airbrushing movement, they would airbrush your favourite rapper, a dead family member or your crew onto t-shirts, denim jackets, jeans or sneakers, but it was never widely available on a large scale. The next big (possibly the biggest) link between graffiti and streetwear came with Marc Ecko and his Ecko Unltd brand, initially he also used the airbrush to paint clothing but progressed to mass production and worldwide distribution with many of his designs leaning heavily on the graffiti aesthetic. Needless to say, graffiti and streetwear are destined to progress into the future hand in hand, and I for one am glad to see this relationship continue!

I’ve tried my hand a few times at writing and painting, but mostly out of curiosity and never very well! lol. Like most kids/teenagers I went through a phase of scrawling my name on walls and other smooth surfaces with a permanent marker (usually followed by “was here” or 9T9) back in the day, I tagged a few places with car paint too, but had no idea of can control or letter proportions and mostly just made a mess to be honest. More recently I had a play around with some actual graffiti paint I was given by friends after painting a wall in my house and also in the 5th Element building, so I have a better understanding of the mechanics of how a piece comes together, with the distance from the cap to the wall determining the thickness of the line, cutting in with colours and fading between colours, but I’ve never attempted anything so ambitious. I do enjoy sketching graffiti when I find time, but unfortunately that’s about as far as it’s going for the foreseeable future.

What’s your favourite piece of graffiti or street art in Belfast? 

I’m a big fan of the traditional letter and character style graffiti and have a great sense of appreciation for all styles, from simple handstyles and tags, through to throw ups and obviously pieces and productions. Some of the productions put together by the FAKrew in Belfast have been breathtaking, the Game Of Thrones, Jungle Is Massive and Stranger Kings ones are a few that stick out in my mind, there are some really talented writers in that crew. Another writer whose pieces have caught my eye recently is Nota from TMN, some of the fills he’s been putting out are amazing! Of course you can’t mention TMN without talking about Anco, he really is “all city”, you can’t travel more than a few minutes in Belfast without seeing him somewhere! I’ve seen some nice work from DOC and Aike recently too, and it’s always good to see a new Noys or Rask piece when you’re out and about, they’re insanely good writers and visit Belfast quite often.

On the street art front I love Blurry Eyed by Dan Kitchener, Smug One’s lobster chef is breathtaking as well, it’s hard to believe that level of detail can be achieved with spray cans! Kev Largey‘s work is really cool too, he actually put a few pieces up in the 5th Element building recently to bring some diversity to the walls. Of course Francois Got Buffed has to get a mention too, he has wheatpaste, stickers and spraycan work all over Belfast and seeing it always brings a smile to my face!

Tell us about your involvement with 5th Element NI, a local hip-hop based charity; how did that partnership form, and what projects have you worked on together?

I began working with 5th Element NI last year after a number of discussions with Terry Conlon, the mastermind behind the charity, over the past couple of years. I loved the idea of helping people by using the four elements of Hip Hop, especially when a lot of people I know and respect were involved. Terry had already brought Andy and David from Elixir and Paul and Sebastian from Northern Soles Crew together, forming a solid base for the charity. Since then he has recruited me and also Daz from Skank FM (who broadcast daily live radio shows from the building), artist Sam Barry and videographer Chris Eva along with committee members who specialise in looking after the legal and financial side of things a.k.a. the boring paperwork stuff! lol.

Everyone brings their own strengths and experience to the group, and together we have achieved a lot in the past year or two. Last year we managed to secure the use of the old Rankins furniture building on Great Victoria Street in Belfast, since then we have converted it into a Hip Hop social hub to bring the community together using the four elements (B-Boying, Emceeing, DJing and Graffiti). Here we hosted an open day to let everyone see what we’re all about and get a feel for the various artforms we represent, as well as express themselves in a very supportive community atmosphere. We have also put on an event around the topic of mental health called Beat It, with performances and panel discussions to encourage people to be more open about their mental health issues and let them know help is available in unconventional avenues. Most recently we re-opened the building after lockdown to do a workshop with a cross-community group of kids from Alternatives Restorative Justice, made possible by Urban Villages. In this workshop we taught the kids the basics of DJing, managing and promoting an event, graphic design and printing t-shirts, they also put on their own event, streaming live on Twitch from the Skank FM studio in 5th Element HQ.

We look forward to getting more events and workshops lined up over the next few months and we would welcome anyone interested to come along or reach out to us.

Can you tell us about your Youtube series ‘Orbiting Elements’? Will we be seeing more episodes in the future?

I started the Orbiting Elements series to give local people the chance to showcase their skills in the four elements of Hip Hop, so far we have made three episodes, the first two with Emcees, L.O.R.D. (Let Our Revolution Decide) and Rosco Sauce, and the third with turntablist DJ Koncept who won the UK DMC Championship in 2018. I was aiming to have more episodes out by now, but unfortunately Covid-19 has slowed things down, now that lockdown measures are easing we should be able to get some more performances lined up. I have been in talks with some breakers about doing an episode and have more emcees in the pipeline too, if there are any graffiti writers out there who would like to do a piece for an episode please get in touch!

How has Covid-19 affected your output? And do you have any plans for when the lockdown is fully lifted?

Thankfully Covid-19 hasn’t affected MoonDoggys as much as many other businesses out there, mostly because I do all of the production work at home, printing garments in a home office. The main problem I faced with the pandemic was getting supplies delivered as many of my suppliers were either closed or working with a reduced workforce, and delivery services were also running behind schedule which added to the delays. Luckily my customers were very understanding, I’m sure they faced the same problems with other companies they were shopping with at this time. I am also waiting for a shipment of MoonDoggys basketballs from China which has been in transit for over 50 days now thanks to the global pandemic, hopefully they will arrive soon!

The main thing I’m looking forward to when lockdown is fully lifted is to get the pop up shop set up at Elixir Belfast Hip Hop Showcase and 5th Element NI events again, it’s great to get to catch up with people you only see at the gigs and also to bring your products to new people as well.

Neta Hoodie collab with Walross

During lockdown, we’ve been binge-watching ‘Sneaker Shopping with Complex’ on Youtube; what’s your favourite sneaker?

I love watching Sneaker Shopping With Complex, although it usually makes me want to spend silly amounts of money that I don’t have! lol. Watching the Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls documentary, The Last Dance, on Netflix actually made me look into finding a factory in China to make the MoonDoggys basketballs, and also go looking for (and buy) a pair of retro Shaquille O’Neal sneakers called Shaqnosis by Reebok from 1996 that I had when I was 12.

Although my collection doesn’t come close to some of the sneakerheads on Complex, I have about 25 pairs and my favourite silhouette among them is definitely the Nike Air Force 1. I have 7 pairs of AF1s now, mostly low top but I really love the mids, I aim to have at least one colourway to match every item of clothing in my closet at some stage. There are also a few pairs of Adidas Superstars and Jordans, my favourite of which are the Jordan 3s.

Finally, is there anyone you want to shout-out, or anyone we should check out online?

First off I’d like to thank Clare from Belfast Beyond for the opportunity to tell my story, I really appreciate it. I want to give a shout out to everyone who has helped me get the brand this far from day one, I have some die hard supporters out there like Clegy, Tyler (Dizygotic), Stu (ImCalledStu) and loads of local Hip Hop artists who represent in their videos and on stage including  Daz (Skank FM), Rosco Sauce, Skeet, Durty Devz, Steve Loc, Marxx, Danny Droppit, Dsgrace, Kronus and too many others to list, thank you all so much! I also want to thank graffiti writers Web, Joke and Shuk and tattoo artist Walross for collaborating with me. Massive thank you to Andy and David at Elixir for asking me to bring the pop up shop to their events, you have opened up a huge opportunity for me! Big up Daz for supporting since day one and using the Skank FM platform to help get the word out about MoonDoggys to your audience. Everyone at 5th Element NI for being such a great group to work with and TJ for asking me to get involved. Last but by no means least thank you to my Fiancee Natalie and her awesome son Lucas, you have been so supportive of my ambition and dream chasing with the brand and you have pushed me to put in the work when I wasn’t feeling inspired, looks like it’s starting to pay off!

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All photos courtesy of Mark Brittain

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