T-shirt Horology Art & Screen printing the Seiko SKX Lume Tees
After a few years of being in the horology art game with the uchi horology series, I got together with copywriter Al Hidden to discuss the journey so far, future projects and in particular about printing the latest lumed T-shirts…
‘As you may have noticed from my clothing and artworks,’ explains Michael, ‘I’ve always been inspired by mathematics, astronomy, science, Hip Hop and Japanese culture. Time and watches fascinate me too. Even though, until recently, my ‘watch collection’ only consisted of a single titanium Seiko that went unworn for years because of its broken bracelet.’
Gestation of horology art ideas
When the time for further exploration of horology art and watches arrived, it’s no surprise that Michael turned to Omega for inspiration. After all, he’s long identified with the Biel/Bienne brand’s Speedmaster Moonwatch Professional. Maybe his love for this legendary watch has more than a little to do with him being born during Apollo’s 1969 Moon mission. Whatever the reason, watches and horology art have gestated in Michael’s creative consciousness for decades. ‘And, yes,’ he says, ‘I wouldn’t mind owning a 1969 Speedmaster ST105.012 one day.’
Inspiration for The Uchi Horology Series
So what finally inspired The Uchi Horology Series? It was meeting UK-based Geckota Ltd that kick-started today’s flourishing horology art collection. It also got Michael back into wearing watches again…
After meeting the Gloucestershire, UK-based watch and strap business, Michael discussed the possibility of getting some of his designs onto NATO straps. That was several years ago. For whatever reason, maybe the right idea at the wrong time, that particular project didn’t come to fruition.
The impetus to explore watches and art in more detail
‘However, Geckota gave me a couple of their watches and straps,’ explains Michael. ‘They made me a brand ambassador and gave me the kick I needed to explore watches and art in more depth and realise my ideas.’
Those first horological designs saw Michael experimenting with ideas based on the Steve McQueen Le Mans Heuer Monaco. To this he added some Bauhaus, Max Bill ‘root 2’ proportions (à la konkrete kunst 1944) and Porsche 917 references. The result was a popular first collection. The Uchi Horology Series was up and running faster than a 917 fishtailing away from the Le Mans starting grid in 1970.
The first Uchi Horology Series collection
By July 2019, approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, he’d added his first Omega Speedmaster creations to the collection. It was perfect timing, inspired by receiving a copy of Moonwatch Only: The Ultimate Omega Speedmaster Guide as an early birthday gift.
The result, as with the Heuer Monaco pieces, was a collection of tees and art prints, including the ‘Omega Speedmaster Professional Apollo XI Moon Landing Horology Print’. Another popular seller on the Uchi website and Etsy, this features a Moon-surface dial and accurate star map as viewed from the Sea of Tranquillity at exactly 20:17:39 (UTC) on 20 July 1969. It’s just another example of the creativity and attention to detail that’s defined Michael’s work over the years.
Communicating concepts; not just products
‘Like so many of my creations,’ he says, the Apollo XI art avoids the simple photorealistic depictions that characterise some horology art. I prefer storytelling and communicating concepts rather than just illustrating products.’
So it was with the first Heuer and Speedmaster works. Realising how many photorealistic watch illustrations there were only affirmed Michael’s desire to add something more sophisticated, cerebrally challenging and different.
Inspired by the Seiko SKX
That’s not to say that projects have never featured accurate representations of the Speedmaster’s bezels, indices and tachymeter scales on a series of products that make the perfect gift for a watch lover. In turn, these inspired further experimentation with watch dial features. From these came new artworks, not only for the Omega, but for another icon loved by watch fans. That was when he turned to the SKX diver’s watch for his first Seiko artwork. What could be better than an accessible timepiece that punches way above its weight, a watch that Hodinkee described as ‘probably the single best value at any price point, in an automatic watch’?
Horological art meets Hokusai
Michael elaborates: ‘Inspired by the SKX, my interest in Seiko’s watches and typography converged in several tracks combining the functionally minimalistic SKX dial, bezel and day-date ring. For further variation, I also drew inspiration from Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (aka ‘The Great Wave’ or ‘The Wave’) woodblock print. It’s a motif that had already inspired other projects, including my “Soundwave off Kanagawa art print”. I was in my element.’
A year on, Michael was ready for a new collection. Back in the UK after collaborating on an article about visual design at Baselworld for Geckota’s online magazine, he developed more ideas inspired by the Speedmaster and SKX.
Collaborative promotion of Uchi horology art
By now, Michael was again exploring possibilities for working with Geckota. This time it was the management of outsourced printing for their promotional apparel – with designs to their brief as well as co-promotion of his prints and horology clothing. Conversations with the team also prompted exploration of themes inspired by the classic Rolex Explorer ‘Everest watch’. And then there’s Patek Philippe’s Calatrava Weekly Calendar (Ref. 5212A-001) with its cursive dial lettering, and the sublimely skeletal Zenith Defy range, that so excited him in Basel. They’re more ideas for the future.
Meanwhile, there was another more pressing aspect of horology art to address…
Scratching the watch-lume T-shirt itch
To bring light to the end of a Covid-19-dominated year, and encouraged by conversations with Jon Quinn and his Geckota team, it was time to take the Seiko SKX and Omega Speedmaster-inspired designs further.
Michael explains: ‘The idea of trying to print some seriously good glow-in-the-dark watch lume came from Ben, my go-to screen printer and owner of Screen One Printers in Bristol, England. I was at Screen One when Ben described some glow-in-the dark screen printing he’d done for another customer. The job had nothing to do with watches or horology, but Ben thought it would be good to try the techniques with my watch joints. As he described what he’d done for the other customer with luminescent inks, I was sold.’
Alongside the Speedy, Michael had the perfect candidates for The Uchi Horology Collection’s first ‘lume’ works. So it was that he set his creative sights on Seiko’s classic black-dial SKX007, ‘Pepsi’ bezel SKX009 and love-or-hate-it orange-dial SKX011. And, of course, the yellow-dial Seiko SKXA35 coveted by many SKX fans.
The Seiko SKX lume tee shirts
On-site at Screen One with another set of timepiece artwork ready for printing, Michael and Ben started experimenting with combinations of T-shirt colour and base ink layers. Their objective was to find combinations that would work well with printed lume so it glows as impressively as the Seiko lume itself. They weren’t the first to try this, but some lume T-shirts underwhelm because they simply don’t capture the design of the SKX’s dial detail as accurately as they could.
‘Instead of ‘just another lume watch T’,’ explains Michael, ‘I wanted to create a Seiko T-shirt that faithfully captured the SKX’s detail including the delicate “tails” on the 12 o’clock delta and oval-lume markers’.
The Seiko SKX yellow dial
And then there’s the Seiko SKXA35 ‘Bumblebee’ with its distinctive yellow dial. It’s an ISO 6425 dive watch that’s up there with other yellow-faced timepieces such as the Breitling Superocean, DOXA Sub 200 Divingstar, Scurfa Diver One D1-500 and Helson Turtle.
Michael again: ‘What particularly interested me, alongside the SKXA35’s growing collectability and borderline cult following, is how its indices differ from those on the 007, 009 and 011. In particular, I like how the ‘inverted split delta’ at 12 o’clock, rectangular indices and small lumed 3 o’clock index work so well together to complement the rest of the dial’s lume.’
Seiko SKXA35. Image credit: Al Hidden
Make no mistake; the lume pattern of the Seiko SKX007, 009 and 011 is great. But the SKXA35 offers something more with the subtle asymmetric lume balance that its stablemates lack. The Uchi Horology Series treatment of the ‘Bumblebee’ dial does full justice to the original. It’s a stunner, but we digress. Let’s get back to the printer’s…
A one-off Speedmaster T-Shirt
Around the same time Michael was continuing his experiment with Speedmaster-inspired designs.
‘I’d originally envisaged doing the lume and bezel as two different artworks in the collection. However, when we did a test, Ben and I realised how well the lume and bezel worked together on the same print.’
At the time of writing, that trial Speedmaster T-shirt remains a one-off, but maybe not for so long. Watch this space….
High fives time at the printers
Michael and Ben also knew from previous experience that using transparent ink directly onto clothing can darken or lighten the base fabric colour appealingly.
‘It isn’t particularly hard to do,’ explains Michael, ‘but it is time consuming, needs careful control and takes a lot of skill to get just right.’
So what does ‘right’ mean? In this case it’s the ‘horology art magic’ that results when two professionals painstakingly combine a lot of technical stuff to perfection. Even the best pictures can’t do full justice to how the lumed SKX graphics appear subtle and understated in a way that belies the complexity of the work put into them. Michael sums up the experience: ‘Perfecting this was a real High Five moment that afternoon at Screen One!’
Timepiece artwork: It’s not as easy as you’d think
His work on the combined bezel print and fluorescing lume of the Speedmaster T-shirt set the scene for perfecting these latest Seiko SKX-inspired designs. Originally, they were only going to feature the lume. But now Michael is confident about reproducing those lovely SKX details more accurately, including the fine edge lines defining the lumed indices and bezel markers on one of Seiko’s most revered entry-level dive watches.
If they’re being completely honest, any screen printer will admit that maintaining perfect register when hand printing detail on fabric such as that of a tee shirt is virtually impossible. So it proved with the SKX tees. Not only does reproducing the original’s fine edge line around the lume (‘it’s not as easy as you’d think.’) give authenticity, but it’s a neat way to ‘trap’ or ‘seal’ any misregistration between, say, the silver bezel print and the lume’s white base layer.
Forget colour; let’s go transparent
Another challenge involved the effect of interaction between black, blue, orange and yellow base T-shirt colours, and the silver or grey inks planned for the SKX007/009 and SKX011/A35 bezels. The effort required to achieve the desired result shows how much more there is to screen printing lumed horology art clothing than ‘just printing’.
As experienced printers, Michael and Ben understood how excessively shiny some silver inks appear on black – and how visually distracting grey ink could be on the orange 011 and yellow SKXA35 designs. Importantly, given the subtle result required, they decided that using silver and glow-in-the-dark ink was overkill. So they settled on transparent clear ink for all four Seiko SKX prints. A benefit is how nicely the clear ink plays with the light and adds to the subtle visual effect with certain lighting angles. This draws the eye to focus on the lume – the tee shirt’s main attraction – while the clear bezel adds further sophistication.
No less than seven precision printing screens
The finished tee shirts capture the simple clarity of the original Seiko dials beautifully. However, it takes no less than seven screens (and the acrylics used for setup and to achieve register on the printing platen) to get the desired effect. There’s one screen for all the bezel details, a base screen for the SKXA35 and another for the other three versions. Add two more screens to achieve the same for the lume; and two more for the edge detail that ‘seals’ any minute misregistration. The latter is also critical for aligning the all-important lume pip within its inverted delta on the SKX bezel. It’s this attention to detail that distinguishes the most appealing horology art clothing. You can see the SKXA35 horology art T shirt here. And the collection’s other luminescent SKX T-shirts too.
What next for The Uchi Horology Series?
So what follows the latest ‘lume’ collection? As you can imagine, there’s still plenty of inspiration left for Michael in the Moonwatch. And in other Omegas too, such as the Seamaster Chrono Diver with its skeletonised plongeur hands. As Michael says, ‘That’s the beauty of getting ideas from watches with such illustrious heritage. Honestly, given how I identify with the Omega Speedmaster, I can’t imagine ever getting bored and lacking ideas.’
Who knows where Michael will take The Uchi Horology Collection next? After seeing his reaction to Zenith’s products and stand design at Baselworld, who’d rule out an exploded deep-dive – Zenith Defy-style – into the mechanism of Omega’s Moonwatch? Only time will tell.
Max Bill, Bauhaus, watches and art
Geckota remains another important source of ideas too. There’s a definite liking for the Rolex Explorer at Geckota HQ. And I’m always nudging Michael to create something based on the classic Universal Genève Polerouter with its signature trapezoidal date window and playful font choice.
Then again, there’s inspiration from his own modest watch collection and a couple of watches he’d like to own alongside that birth-year Speedy. I referenced Patek Philippe’s Calatrava 5212A-001 earlier. There’s also the whole Max Bill Junghans thing led by the Bauhaus-inspired watches, with sublime open-countered ‘4’ numeral, that the Swiss genius designed for the brand.
Whatever Michael does next, it’ll involve much more than just watch-themed T-shirts. The Uchi Horology Series will continue to be true to his belief that there’s more to the art of horology than just reproducing classic watches in technical illustration style. As ever, expect his horology art to keep invoking wider concepts and multiple facets of watches’ stories.
From Stonehenge to ancient African artifacts
‘Thinking ahead,’ says Michael, ‘there’s huge potential to do more with birth-year star maps like the one on my Speedmaster Apollo Moon landing prints. I want to address more Japanese themes too. This might include combining Japanese scenes and seasons with Seiko’s day-date graphics and inspiration from Patek Philippe’s exquisite Baselworld Haute Horlogerie. Taking horology art a stage beyond just the art of watches, I’d like to explore horology in its broadest historical sense. So don’t be surprised to see themes as diverse as Stonehenge, timekeeping in Aztec and Mayan culture, and the Egyptian merkhet.’
Uchi watch straps – or even a watch design?
Reviewing Michael’s watch artwork, from the Heuer Monaco Ref. 1133B, to the Moon and back to lumed Seiko T-shirts is fascinating. So’s the thought of where his talent will take him next. Perhaps we’ll see his designs on Uchi-branded watch straps. Or maybe he’ll emulate American typeface designer Jonathan Hoefler and create an Uchi typeface for watch dials.
‘Whatever the future holds for me in horology art,’ says Michael, ‘It’ll be interesting. I hope my customers enjoy the results as much as I enjoy designing them. And of course, they also make great gift ideas for watch enthusiasts too!’
Omega Speedmaster Lume T shirt – Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine