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St. Pete T-shirt designer gets into the mask game

Jaymi Butler

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Matt Shapiro
“The goal is for you to be able to put these masks on and leave them alone," said Matt Shapiro of his custom masks. Photo: 1771 Designs

Matt Shapiro is fully aware that no one really wants to wear a mask.

“It’s Florida, it’s humid, it’s 95 degrees outside,” he said. “But if we have to wear them, let’s try to have some fun.”

With that philosophy in mind, Shapiro, who owns the custom T-shirt company 1771 Designs, is launching a line of masks that he hopes will bring a little levity to life in the age of COVID-19. 

“I just want to make people laugh,” said Shapiro, a St. Pete native who is also the general manager of Shapiro’s Gallery on Beach Drive. “I always resort to humor when things get tense. Humor is my outlet.”

Shapiro’s line includes masks with St. Pete-specific imagery and snappy sayings such as “Which comes first? A corona vaccine or the Pier?” and “Whatever Karen. Wear your mask.”

He’s also selling shirt and mask combos for people seeking a more coordinated look.

“I’ve noticed people coming into the gallery who are enjoying accessorizing and matching their masks with their purses and their shoes,” Shapiro said. “If I can do anything to encourage people to wear their masks, that’s the important part.”

Shapiro started 1771 Designs in March, when his gallery shut down for six weeks and he found himself with a lot of free time on his hands. He’d designed T-shirts years before and outsourced the printing, but this time he decided he would give it a go all on his own. He bought T-shirt presses and printers and ordered shirts from a vendor in California. Masks were on his radar from the beginning, although at that point Shapiro didn’t fully understand how “severe and intense” the coronavirus was and what role masks would play in limiting the spread.

“It was closer to early May when I started thinking masks are going to be around for awhile,” Shapiro said. “Then it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I saw things weren’t slowing down, and I realized that masks are something we’re going to need for the foreseeable future.”

Despite knowing nothing about making masks, Shapiro dove right in. He ordered pre-made lightweight masks from his t-shirt vendor and started experimenting with water-based inks, design placement and fit. Durability and comfort were his top priorities.

“Every design I have, I wear. If I’m not able to wear it, I won’t sell it,” he said. “The goal is for you to be able to put these masks on and leave them alone.”

As for other businesses considering making the leap into masks, Shapiro advised them to “make masks that you would actually want to wear.” If you’re not comfortable with what you’re creating, he said, customers probably won’t be, either. Otherwise, his attitude is “the more the merrier.”

“The more variety of masks out there, the better,” Shapiro said. “We’re all in this together. Let’s at least try to pass along some laughs.”

Shapiro will begin selling masks online Tuesday (June 23). They will be made to order and can be shipped or picked up locally.

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