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Jesus is your . . . what?

Celebrities are wearing them, teens are buying them. But are their "homeboy" T-shirts expressing faith or mocking it?

SHARON TUBBS
Published May 30, 2004

TAMPA - Religion has partnered with hip-hop in the often misunderstood world of youth fashion. It's like Billy Graham meets P. Diddy, Ariel Sharon and J.Lo.

Consider the latest trend: a T-shirt with the words "Jesus Is My Homeboy" scrawled across a picture of a frizzy-haired man with mustache and goatee - a Christ for a baggy-jeans-wearing generation.

Madonna was spotted wearing the female version: "Mary Is My Homegirl." MTV host and actor Ashton Kutcher has sported the homeboy shirt with matching baseball cap. Apparently, Ben Affleck is also one of Jesus' homies.

Or is he?

Forget for a minute that "homeboy" is so '90s, that it has long been replaced in urban slang by "dog" and other colloquialisms.

What's interesting is that popular stars are wearing these tees, young people are buying them, and yet no one really knows what they mean. "Jesus Is My Homeboy" - is the mix of reverence and worldliness intended to cheer the deity or to deride him?

It's a question that comes up more these days as young Christians, Jews and nonbelievers alike indulge in a trend that sets aside religious clarity for the sake of coolness.

Take 16-year-old Jeannie Mounger of Brooksville. She saw a white "Jesus Is My Homeboy" tee last fall and had to have it.

Jeannie is an atheist who thinks religion "constrains people." The shirt was funny to her, "the mocking of religion," she figured.

She psyched herself up to wear it to school the first time. Her mother, a Methodist, was against it, and Jeannie figured school administrators would be, too.

The wanna-be rebel arrived at Nature Coast Technical High School, Jesus/Homeboy across her chest for all to see. But there was no firestorm of protest. Some of her churchgoing peers thought the shirt was great and mistook her for a believer. Others just laughed and pointed as she walked by.

After a few uneventful wears, Jeannie tucked her homeboy away. The shirt - created by Los Angeles-based Teenage Millionaire - had "lost its hilarity," she said recently, standing beside a rack of them at Urban Outfitters in Ybor City.

Jordan Canas, 17, was also at the store, shopping with her mother. She had seen an article with a picture of MTV Punk'd host Kutcher in homeboy garb. She wasn't sure what to make of it.

"If people aren't religious and they don't mean it, then I don't think it's appropriate," said Jordan, wearing a cross pendant around her neck, symbolic of her faith.

Her mother, Julia Canas, stood looking confused by the whole thing.

"I don't know what that means. "Homeboy,' what does that mean?"

Jordan raised a fist to her chest: "Like my brother," she said.

Jews looking for equal time have several clothes lines to choose from. About 11/2 years ago, Jon Steingart and his wife, Jenny Wiener, were hosting a night for Jewish entertainers at a theater they own in New York. They called the event "Jewcy" and had a logo made for a few T-shirts. Jews in Manhattan saw the shirts and wanted to buy them. Along with two other partners, the couple launched a line of Jewcy clothes, now including G-strings. They take orders online and use a warehouse to distribute the merchandise to Jews nationwide and in Asia, Latin America and Europe.

"People are seeing it as a kind of lightning rod for what it means to be Jewish," Steingart said. "We feel it means just having pride in your culture."

The meaning changes from person to person, he said. Many Jewcy buyers in New York, for instance, haven't seen the inside of a temple in quite some time. The clothes don't necessarily speak to their religious practices, but rather their heritage. It's something fresh and exciting to wear, Steingart said. In Europe, where people don't publicize their faith as much since the Holocaust, however, wearing Jewcy makes a bold statement of religious and cultural pride.

But Steingart's most popular shirt features a two-word phrase not fit for the synagogue. The first word is "Shalom." The second, well, let's just say it's a compound noun that starts with "mother."

"It is irreverent, there's no question about it," Steingart said of his bestselling tee. "But Judaism is a long-standing culture that has adapted," he said. Some people may see it as a bad word, but today's young people use it as a salutation, he said. Like, "What's up, blankety-blank?"

Then there's the Jew.Lo line of tees and panties created by Julia Lowenstein, from Brooklyn. On www.jewlo.com Lowenstein explains that Jew.Lo is "the new Jewish female, bold, strong, invincible and available."

It's a play on J.Lo, the nickname of pop singer Jennifer Lopez, known for her broken relationships and her curvaceous behind. The Jew.Lo woman, Lowenstein says, "looks to J.Lo for inspiration and then says, "Jenny, I'm twice the woman you'll ever be with 50 times the booty and a thousand times the brain.' "

(Can't you just see her fingers snapping and neck moving here?)

What's happening is much bigger than sassy Jew.Los and homeboys, though. A movement is afoot to make religion cool. Magazines such as Heeb: The New Jew Review appeal to younger Jews and relish their disregard for tradition. A 2003 movie, The Hebrew Hammer, featured a Jewish action hero in a play on 1970s blaxploitation films such as Shaft.

In Christendom, too, traditionalism has bowed to an urban culture that attracts youth. Revolve, published by a division of Thomas Nelson Inc., looks like a glossy magazine for teens. It's really the complete New Testament intermingled with beauty secrets and dating tips. Contemporary Christian music, now a multimillion-dollar industry, is often indistinguishable from anything on Billboard's Top 40. And churches that once relished piety play host to Christian rappers wearing bandanas and necklaces with nail pendants around their necks - symbolic of the nails that pinned Jesus to the cross, of course.

Or maybe not.

Dwight Robinson is the marketing director for Bob Siemon Designs, a California company that is the official maker of the nail pendants, which became popular after the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

It has become clear that some people are buying the pendants simply because they think it's cool to wear a nail, Robinson said. These buyers make no connection with the Crucifixion.

The nail was intended to be symbolic jewelry that draws the attention of unbelievers. The Christian can use it as a conversation piece to tell the Gospel story, Robinson said.

Siemon Designs tries to offset the potential for ambiguity by selling its religious jewelry in Christian retail stores or boutiques owned by Christians. But people are selling nail knockoffs in secular shops, confusing the intent, Robinson said.

Yet the reverse is somewhat true, as well. Siemon designers browse malls and trendy secular shops to see what's hot, then create a religious alternative.

About a year ago, Siemon released a line of toe rings decorated with crosses, hearts, "Jesus" and the Christian fish symbol. They are popular with young women and teens, especially in Southern states where sandals are worn year-round, Robinson said.

With religious fashion, he said, what matters most is the message that the person is trying to communicate.

He thinks many people wear "Jesus Is My Homeboy" shirts simply for style, and he has no plans to buy one. One of his Christian co-workers has the shirt, though. He told Robinson the phrase has a deeper meaning for him. "Homeboy," he told Robinson, "means friend."

Jesus may have many new friends these days. Former Playboy model Pamela Anderson is one of them - perhaps. Anderson was recently spotted and photographed wearing jeans, sunglasses and a snug-fitting homeboy shirt.

- Sharon Tubbs can be reached at 727 892-2253 or tubbs@sptimes.com

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