Vendor Spotlight: APE Made Thrives with Hand-Printed City Merch
With the clenching of the Cavalier’s National Championship win, many celebrated by jumping on top of RTA stations, rallying in downtown pubs, kissing their significant others teary-faced.
April Bleakney made a shirt.
Images courtesy of ApeMadeOhio.com Images courtesy of ApeMadeOhio.com Images courtesy of ApeMadeOhio.com
Two days after LeBron James bear-hugged his prized golden trophy, Bleakney, of APE Made Art & Apparel, was working busily in her home studio, screen-printing a Sega Genesis-inspired “BOOM SHAKA LAKA!” onto previously blank tees and tanks. Hours after posting the design, Bleakney was bombarded with messages from fans and friends eager to buy.
“Admittedly, NBA Jam is the only reason I like basketball,” Bleakney wrote on her website soon after. “That, plus Cleveland, which you already KNOW I love.”
One look at Bleakney’s studio and showroom, the claim is undeniably true. APE Made is Cleveland, practically.
Among T-shirt presses, screen racks, and flash dryers in Bleakney’s 3,600 square-foot studio space are hundreds of homages to her city —from custom-colored koozies to decorative snow globes. A pillow reading “THE LAND DON’T SCARE” sits snuggly in her showroom, the line a Bleakney original first popularized when local comedian Ramon Rivas II wore a sweatshirt with her slogan on it for a Comedy Central special. Nearby, embroidery made by her grandmother for her birthday hangs in the kitchen, ringing out truth and Wu-tang wisdom over Bleakney’s workspace: “C.R.E.A.M” or “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.”
Celebrating her five-year business anniversary this year, with the grand opening of a new storefront and studio space in the Loftworks building last May, APE Made continues to prosper—especially at local markets and events—while still keeping original printing processes untampered with.
Bleakney uses eco-friendly inks, and screen-prints everything from silk ties to poster prints fully by hand. “Our arms are basically the machines,” she jokes. “We’re very ‘human-body friendly.’”
Affable with the quick mind of a multi-tasker, Bleakney began APE Made in the basement of her college housing at Kent State University. Though the company wasn’t yet official, Bleakney received the idea for her breakout shirt design from a venture outside of her home state. It’s still one of her best sellers today.
“Everywhere I would travel, people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re from Ohio?” Bleakney says, drawn out. “Or it would be”—her voice rises—“‘Whoa! I’m from Ohio, too!’ So I did the ‘I’M FROM OHIO’ shirt as kind of a joke. I put a picture of it on Facebook, and then everybody wanted one.”
But it was no joke. In 2011, Bleakney relocated to Cleveland for a post-grad residency with Zygote Press, which allowed her better equipment to burn screens, and pressure-wash reclaimed ones. Instead of buying a professional exposure table (which can market at around $4,000), a friend built one using store-bought fluorescent tube lights. Art History texts were repurposed as weights. Her first storefront was the trunk of her car.
Moving blocks away from where Night Market’s currently held in Asiatown, Bleakney found it natural to be a part of the event when it first arrived on the scene. Though she’s run the gamut on the standard Cleveland pop-ups, Bleakney has always found a particular kind of appeal to Night Market.
“I think it’s different than a lot of events in Cleveland,” she says. “It’s at night, for one. But the thing for me that makes it unique is the diversity of attendees. I do shows almost every weekend—but the vibe there is just so cool. There’s black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Everybody. It simply just feels different.”
Almost unexpected in a way, most APE Made purchases are from outside of Ohio, those longing for the self-referential humor Bleakney prints daily. Most local recognition she owes to fleas and maker fairs, where “I’M FROM OHIO” proudly hangs its banner. Yet, even as Rivas’s special is set to display APE Made to a widespread audience, Bleakney herself is still unsure of her reaction.
“The exposure will feel cool,” she admits. “But I don’t get cable, so I don’t know if I’ll see it, or not.”
photographs by Breanna Kulkin