Kelly Nickels Creates Shirts For Rocking Out

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Kelly Nickels sits at a desk in his man cave—an unattached garage at his home in Sag Harbor—working on a skull design with his Mac desktop. He zooms out, revealing hundreds of variations of that same design filling the screen.

To his back, a large “Lone Ranger” poster of actor Johnny Depp is tacked up on the wall next to a small shelf of pirate memorabilia. A black bass guitar leans against a 1997 Harley-Davidson Road King motorcycle sitting under a handmade “Montauk Salvage Company” sign hanging overhead—teasing to the T-shirt screen-printing business the former musician runs out of his basement studio, a departure from his previous career as a rock-and-roller. Drawings of skulls and crossbones dot both the garage’s walls and the artist’s arms, the once-dark ink fading into graying tattoos.

It seems a lifetime ago when Mr. Nickels was on stage with his bass guitar, touring the world with the metal band L.A. Guns. Since those days, the 52-year-old hasn’t physically changed much—other than his slightly shorter hair and an acquired limp, thanks to a motorcycle accident 28 years earlier, the day his band landed their first record deal.

He walked over to his cellar doors, pulled them open and descended into his dimly lit studio, where T-shirts lie across tables, printed with the designs he had just been browsing upstairs on his Mac. One shirt reads “Ditch Plains,” underneath a skull, while a Native American chief’s silhouette and variations of the Montauk Salvage Company emblems decorate others.

Mr. Nickels himself dons one of his signature designs as he mixes together a muted gray color out of specialized paints. For the past three years, he has been striving to create “the perfect T-shirt,” he says—and it doesn’t match Seersucker pants and boat shoes.

“It’s the shirt you wear when you get bloody, when you’re fishing, when you’re working—it’s a salvage company,” Mr. Nickels explains. “It’s not the one you wanna keep clean. It’s the one that should get beat up. It’s a shirt to die in.”

In the cellar, Mr. Nickels fishes out a dark gray men’s shirt to offset the lighter paint. Fitting the fabric on a small board, he lines up a screen of the chief’s head on the center of the shirt and, in a matter of seconds, the image is permanently captured on cloth.

“If you put [your design] on a shirt, it’s kind of cool,” Mr. Nickels says, “because you can wear it.”

Forever an artist, Mr. Nickels turned to graphic and web design during the internet revolution, after leaving the L.A. Guns in 1996. Four years ago, the former musician and his partner, Kelly Cunningham, returned to his native state—New York—where he grew up in Harlem, Huntington and Northport. And as a kid, he hated it.

He has since had a change of heart.

“When I was here, I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t like it here,” Mr. Nickels says. “And now, I’m totally in love with it. You feel like you’re a part of something. That’s what I missed in L.A.”

Working on the East End, Mr. Nickels feels inspired by the folklore of the area, he explains, and wanted to harness the aura of local living through a tangible product. Enter Montauk Salvage Company, he says—“a catalyst to maybe opening a bar or restaurant someday. I like things that are rad.”

For more information, visit montauksalvage.com.

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