Unlike the basketball-deprived millions glued to their TVs on Sunday nights, Micky Goldschmidt isn’t watching The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part docuseries about the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty.
“I grew up a die-hard New York Knicks fan,” the 48-year-old says of the team that Michael Jordan would knock out of the playoffs four times over the course of that decade. “I don’t need to relive that painful past.”
That period of Bulls history also reminds the entrepreneur of the dramatic rise and precipitous fall of one of his early business ventures: Fanatix Apparel, which he ran out of his parents’ basement in Teaneck, New Jersey in the 1990s. Shortly after leaving a Guns N’ Roses show with a forgettable concert tee, Goldschmidt founded the company and staked out unexplored territory: tattoo T-shirts. Onto long-sleeve cotton tees, he printed the true-to-life tats of rock stars such as Axl Rose and Ozzy Osborne. The line was a hit with fans. But once the major rock ’n’ roll apparel companies caught wind of Fanatix wholesaling merchandise without proper licensing agreements, Goldschmidt made a fateful move into the increasingly tattooed world of sports.
No major athlete of the era was more closely associated with ink than Dennis Rodman. As the NBA’s enfant terrible became a sensation on the Bulls during the 1995-96 season — his hair color changing as often as his mood — Fanatix’s Rodman tattoo shirt exploded in popularity, helped along by NBC showing off the shirt during a nationally televised game. Rodman, a former member of the arch-rival Detroit Pistons, told me in a 2018 interview that he knew Chicago fans had embraced him when he saw them show up to games wearing his tattoos on their sleeves. Yet, with retailers flooding Fanatix with orders, Rodman sued the company for $1 million. Goldschmidt ceased production before settling the case for an undisclosed amount.
He produced only several thousand Rodman tattoo T-shirts. Originally priced at around $20, a vintage one can sell today for more than ten times that amount. Listings at online marketplaces such as Etsy and Grailed include photos of rapper Travis Scott wearing the shirt. The scarcity has made the tee one of the most peculiar of all Nineties Bulls collectables.
For the last nine years, Goldschmidt has run Daphyl’s, which sells rock-band-branded baby gear. He recently talked to Rolling Stone about creating the Rodman tattoo T-shirt, the tee’s brief shining moment as a sports merchandising curiosity, and his legal tangling with the Worm.
How did you think to start putting tattoos on T-shirts?
It started during the Use Your Illusion Tour of Guns N’ Roses. I attended one of the shows, and I bought a crappy Screen Stars T-shirt for $25 or $30. I was like, “I kind of hate this shirt. I just want a shirt with Axl Rose’s tattoos.” I’d had a prior T-shirt company that didn’t go anywhere, but I felt like I knew a little about textiles. Ultimately, I loved the idea of tattoos on a shirt. People want to be rock stars. They play air guitar. I thought, what better way for a fan to connect with a rock star than through tattoos? I made a bunch of the shirts: Axl, Slash, Steven Tyler, Ozzy, Henry Rollins — the better the tattoos, the better the shirt.
What was the production process like?
It was a pain in the ass! A very talented tattoo artist lived around the corner from me. We would record MTV on VHS tape, and we would pause the tape any time one of the guys was in a video without their shirt on. And we’d look at magazines like Metal Edge and Hit Parader. Rock stars seemed to never wear a shirt, so over time we could figure out all their tattoos. Then we would project the image of the tattoo onto a wall and trace it onto paper. One major problem from the get-go is that you can’t print tubular. I found a T-shirt manufacturer in California and got the guy to print the shirts on open fabric, so once we sewed up the shirt, it would have that all-over tattoo look. He would ship the shirts to me, and then some ladies — members of a church group in Secaucus, New Jersey — would sew up the shirts.
Did you ever hear from the artists?
At one point, I got in touch with the manager of Red Hot Chili Peppers. The response was basically like, “Don’t waste my time with this.” But I started butting heads with the apparel companies who were paying the artists a lot of money for licensing. I wasn’t paying anything for licensing. I honestly didn’t know that you had to pay money to license a tattoo. At the time, there were four major companies that did rock ’n’ roll T-shirts: Brockum, Winterland, Nice Man, and Giant. To all my distribution points, they basically said, “You can’t buy these products. They’re all unlicensed.” And I had been selling a lot of shirts.
As the rock T-shirt business began drying up, I started moving into sports apparel with athlete tattoo T-shirts. The first one I designed was Mike Tyson, who had, among other tattoos, a portrait of Mao on his upper arm. But after he was convicted of rape and sentenced to prison I decided not to produce that shirt.
Then came the Rodman tattoo shirt?
In 1993, Rodman was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. That’s when he started dating Madonna and went a little off the reservation. He saw the movie Demolition Man and was inspired to start dying his hair like Wesley Snipes’s character. He was just a little out there as far as NBA players are concerned. I was like, “I should make a shirt of that guy’s tattoos.” Getting his tattoos was a huge undertaking, because I wanted all the tattoos, even the ones under his jersey. Thankfully, he did a magazine spread, where he had his shirt open and you could see he had a sunburst ankh around his belly-button and other tattoos.
This was way before Google image search.
Right. This was old-school. We would tape games and pause the tape when the broadcast showed Rodman at a certain angle. We had nothing but VHS tapes and tracing paper.
We did make some changes to Rodman’s tattoos. The lawsuit noted that the shirt featured his tattoo of his daughter’s face on the forearm. I can understand him being upset that his child was being portrayed out there in the world. But I had nixed that before we finalized the artwork. It ended up being a picture of my artist’s three-year-old nephew. Rodman’s tattoo on his shoulder area that says “Harley Davidson” next to a motorcycle and a devil girl — we changed that to read “Harley Deviation,” because I knew enough even then not to knock off Harley Davidson. So we tweaked the design enough and I started selling the shirts in San Antonio. I sold six dozen here, two dozen there — it didn’t really move.
That changed when Rodman got traded to the Bulls in 1995?
On a lark, I shipped a case of the shirts to the United Center. I had spoken to whomever the buyer was. I said, “Don’t even pay me. Just take them. If you sell them, you’ll pay me.” It was truly like a consignment deal. I didn’t even ask him for a purchase order. I just sent him a box of shirts and then I forgot about it.
This is where the story of the Rodman shirt takes on a life of its own. The Bulls played Orlando in late February 1996. It was a big game, Shaq versus Jordan, nationally televised on NBC. Between the first and second quarters, NBC did a little segment on Bulls merchandise being sold at the United Center. [Sportscaster Ahmad] Rashad is at a store in the stadium’s concourse, and he says, “You can get almost anything.” Then he shows the camera the Dennis Rodman tattoo T-shirt.
Did you see the segment when it aired?
It just so happens, my father had a friend in town from Israel, who was a crazy NBA fan. My dad asked me to tape the game because they were going out. So I pressed record on the VCR and left the house. When I came back, there was message after message on my answering machine: “Micky, you’re the man! I can’t believe it!” I’m like, “What is going on?” Then I get a message from the buyer at the United Center saying, “Send us as many shirts as you can produce. We’ve had 300 phone calls in the last hour from all over the world.”
So I took the VHS tape of the segment and sent it to my cousin who was in college studying video. I said, “Make me videotape copies of just these two minutes. I need it right away.” Which he did. And then I sent out the copies along with a sample of the Rodman shirt to Sports Authority, Modell’s — every sporting goods chain store I could find.
What was the response?
It just kind of blew up. I had a couple sales reps, and they were just having the easiest time of their lives. They could knock on any door and get a sale. I had a fax machine back then, and the orders just kept faxing through. It was a good feeling, let me tell you! [Laughs.] But a little overwhelming. A lot of orders came in very fast. It was just order after order after order. There was a limit to how many shirts the four ladies from the church group could sew. So I was talking to people: “Do you know someone in contract manufacturing?”
And then… the house of cards just kind of fell.
That’s when you heard from Rodman?
I got a fairly angry phone call from Rodman’s agent, Dwight Manley. I get it, the guy was just doing his job, but he was not happy. He was like, “You’ve gotta stop selling these! You’re not authorized!” The call made me a little nervous. I certainly didn’t like getting yelled at. But I was, like, 25 years old and had a fairly independent spirit. I brushed it off. And I had just gotten an $80,000 order from Osco Drug. There was no way I was stopping. Not without something more official than a phone call. At the time, I said to Manley, “Why don’t we get a three-way phone call with Rodman and we work something out?” But he wasn’t having it. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was like, “Rodman doesn’t own these tattoos! He has no more right to Harley Davidson than I do!” If anything, the tattoo artist should have copyright over the tattoos.
But after that phone call, Rodman’s side lawyered up. They filed for immediate injunctive relief, and the judge granted it. A week or two later, I was standing in front of a federal judge who told me that I should not pursue this any longer. One thing you learn in business very quickly is that if a federal judge tells you not to do something, you don’t do it.
Do you know how many Rodman shirts you had sold?
I think we sold, ballpark, several thousand. Which was most of what we produced. After the federal injunction, we advised retailers to return unsold merchandise. Fortunately, there was little to nothing left on the shelves, so returns were minimal.
The Associated Press wrote a short item about the lawsuit in May 1996 that was picked up by major newspapers across the country.
When the story broke about Rodman suing, it became a whole hullabaloo. My grandparents in Florida saw an article. My brother in Israel saw an article. That was the death knell for Fanatix Apparel.
In the suit, Rodman asked for $1 million in damages. I can’t imagine how many shirts you would have had to sell to make $1 million.
That was just an arbitrary number put into a lawsuit. But for a 25-year-old, $1 million sounded overwhelming. It’s easy to be cavalier about it now, but at the time I was like, “This really sucks!” When we settled, I was told the terms were not to be discussed — so I don’t know what I’m allowed to say or not. But I will say that Rodman’s side was not piggish. I never had to file bankruptcy.
Rodman started making his own tattoo shirt in 1998, under the banner of Dennis Rodman Productions in association with another T-shirt company. Were you upset?
Viscerally, when I first saw it. I was annoyed, but it was more like, “Have an original idea, guys!”
In 2016, NBA player J.R. Smith came out with a tattoo shirt.
I saw that! Watching the NBA over the last 25 years, I’m always a little sad that I didn’t get a chance to really run with the concept of the tattoo T-shirt. There’s no arena of the entertainment industry, outside of maybe hip-hop, that has better tattoos on display all the time. How many Shaq tattoo shirts could I have sold?
The company you now run makes baby gear — toys, sippy cups, bibs, strollers — branded with the logos of bands such as the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. I would imagine that all of those products are licensed.
Yes, we’re licensed through the nose! Once bitten, twice shy.