Nightsweats & T-Cells is a Cleveland based t-shirt printing company which also provides custom screenprinting and design work for AIDS service organizations, special events, and mainstream businesses. It is staffed by people living with HIV. In the interview below, Gil Kudrin, director of development for Nightsweats & T-Cells, talks about where the shop got its name, a reason to SURVIVE, and the need for more customers.
Nightsweats and T-Cells is a unique printshop. What is the idea behind it and when did it start?
In 1989 Paul Monette, his best friend Victor Brown, and a Social Worker from Cleveland, would have conversations about HIV and say "There should be a T-shirt [about HIV/AIDS], then when you wore it to the grocery store people could not ignore the Plague!" And they said at the time, "If we ever make the T-shirts, the company should be called Nightsweats & T-cells."
The Social Worker returned to Cleveland for their job at one of the Hospital's HIV clinics. They found a screenprinter who was HIV+ and asked them to print some HIV print shirts. The Social Worker would sell the shirts, and then give the money to people with HIV, until one day they realized they had a friend that was at home dying of HIV-related-boredom. They brought the friend into the screen printing shop, where they learned the trade, and eventually got a paycheck.
Somewhere around this time I met and fell in love with the screenprinter who owned the shop and decided to get involved. I found my place in the world.
Where does the title of the printshop come from?
People with HIV often get debilitating nightsweats and in 1990 there were no viral load tests so t-cells were the best measure of the health or damage to our immune systems. We incorporated under the name Nightsweats & T-cells, Co. -- a somewhat unforgettable name -- and bought our web domain www.nightsweats.com.
What has been the reaction from the community once they learn about you and the great work you all do?
The first several years we operated only at a local level, and out of suitcases when attending HIV conferences. Sometime in 1991 we heard The AIDS Memorial Quilt would be in Washington D.C. the following year. All of the Nightsweats & T-cells staff wanted to go to the display, but many of us were on disability or hanging by a thread financially. We approached The Quilt in hopes we could get the contract to print their shirts. No one knew us yet and they did not understand what we were about. So we took our rent money, my brother's van, and got a street vendor's license. We set up a table and started to sell our shirts. From there two extraordinary things happened:
1.) When people with HIV/AIDS from around the country heard what we were doing in our shop they asked if we were going to franchise or if we knew of any other organizations like ours in their city (this is 1992). During that first day on the street a guy from New York told us about an organization in NYC that was doing what we were doing, but they ran a temp service staffed by People living with AIDS. It was called the Multitasking Services of New York! (MTS, as it was known, was started by Dr. Linda Laubenstein, Larry Kramer's Dr. who was portrayed in The Normal Heart.) She knew what we knew instinctively. It is not Rocket science. When you allow people to remain creative and productive on the days that they are healthy enough to work, they not only live longer, but better. When you give people a reason to get out of bed in the morning, they do just that!
2.) The second extraordinary thing that happened was people wanted our shirts so badly we could not take their money fast enough! We were mobbed! We worked 12 hour days and on the last day the ACT UP NY people brought us onto the Washington Mall with them. Before we were about to pack up and leave I literally sold the shirt off of my back. It was white (or what passed as white after 2 sweaty 12 hour days) with HIV+ in huge bright pink letters. That design was worn by a character on the episode of ER directed by Quentin Tarantino.
My favorite T-shirt you make is "Annoy them ... Survive," which was a piece of art in the exhibition Mixed Messages curated by John Chaich for Visual AIDS. Who came up with the slogan, and what does it mean?
Several of us were at a lecture in the 1990's given by Lark Lands, PhD. She and her brother were long tern survivors of childhood onset brittle diabetes (they are now both near 70). From a young age Lark knew traditional medicine was not enough to save their lives. Lark turned into a researcher, trying out different healing methods on herself. Her doctor was upset by this, telling her she would die if she didn't stop, to which her brother said, "ANNOY THEM ... SURVIVE!" Upon hearing the story, I looked at the guy sitting next to me and said "that's a shirt!" Lark agreed. I designed it and I have lived it. I have been HIV+ since 1978.
As a place that provides meaningful employment for people living with HIV, do you think you are part of helping people survive? How?
I know that Nightsweats & T-cells has saved my life. What is the first thing that people ask you when they meet you? "What do you do?" If you are young and only seeing no future, you will never survive. We are activists, artists and survivors.
One of our long time employees who has battled substance abuse for years is in a long term care facility down the street from our shop and he is now fighting colon cancer. He made contact with us several weeks ago. He was trying to get his physical therapist to walk him down the street to the shop. It is a safe space for everyone who has ever worked there. No judgement, just hope inspiration and a paycheck!
In the 20 years you have been open, what are some of the biggest changes you have seen with the people you work with and the clients you serve?
Next year will be 25 years for Nightsweats & T-cells. Everything has changed in that time. We have become better artists and more digitally proficient. HIV medications have become much more expensive and the health care needs of us long term survivors more complex. The need for employment has become greater, and the resources of those newly diagnosed with HIV fewer. And we always need more customers. There are always more people that want to work than we have work to go around. We could quadruple the output of our shop in a year and never miss a beat or a deadline. The trick is convincing those with the purse strings to give us a paycheck rather than a handout. Do not get me wrong, we have the most loyal customers who demand quality work out of our shop at a reasonable price. We just always need more of them!
As museum exhibitions and films about the early days of the AIDS Crisis continue, are you seeing an increase in people applying for work, or hiring you as clients?
I have seen many ups and downs in the economy over the last 25 years and that is what seems to have the greatest impact on our orders. The public seems to find our history more interesting today as never before, but the stigma of HIV continues and the need for a safe place to be creative and productive is greater than ever.
I am now 56 years old and have been living with HIV since 1978. When I speak in public about living with HIV I always say "Dogs get fleas, Humans get viruses ... it has always been that way ... it always will be ... it is no more complicated than that!" But work can be more complicated than that. I take 42 pills/day. The days that my body retaliates and I mess my pants at work I never have to explain it to my coworkers, for someone living with chronic illness that is a luxury. Notice I did not say "Chronic MANAGEABLE Illness". Until all people living with chronic illness have the luxuries we have at Nightsweats & T-cells, living with HIV will never be MANAGEABLE!