I sit down with Ray Troll, Ketchikan-based artist, to discuss how Alaska's fishing industry inspired him to build a t-shirt empire that would ship millions of shirts worldwide and adorn the chests of rockstars and actors, the business of art, the founding of Salmonfest, the ongoing fight against Pebble Mine, and Alaska's precarious future.
Ray Troll Interview is at 5:15 - skip ahead to it if you'd like!
Ray Troll is an artist, activist, lay scientist, and musician songwriter for the “Ratfish Wranglers.”
Ray is most well-known for his shirts and his designs like “Spawn Till You Die” and “Return of the Sockeye.” STYD is the biggest seller over the years. Ray is 66 years old and still cranking out new lines of shirts every year.
He doesn’t get tired of seeing his old designs. His shirts end up in the wackiest places - in Superbad, a Ugandan action film, on celebrities, and all around Alaska.
Ray’s currently in “hunker down” mode. He hasn’t been doing much in 7 weeks at home. It’s been relaxing and meditative. He’s been walking in the woods and working on a line of new t-shirts. He hasn’t taken on the next big project yet.
His band the Ratfish Wranglers recorded an album in Port Townsend, Washington before Covid-19 hit.
Ray is thinking about starting a podcast. He has a ventriloquist friend named David Strassman from California. Twenty years ago they met and have been friends since. David used to do shows in Anchorage in the 70s and 80s, but his main career is in Australia. They want to start a show called “Paleo Nerds” and talk to scientists. They want to pick the brains of various scientists.
Does Ray do a new line of shirts each year? He needs to be inspired to create new designs, otherwise it’s too much like work. But he’s been inspired regularly for decades now. Over the years he’s done his t-shirts that sustain him financially but in the meantime he has book projects, museum exhibits, a band, and he travels and speaks. The t-shirt business is almost on the side even though it’s his “main gig.” But he has a deep archive of designs. He can go back thirty years ago and rework old designs or hits.
“Return of the Sockeye” is a great example. The shirt came out in the early 90s. The sales tapered off, but one year in the 2000s when he didn’t have new designs he dug it out and did a new digital coloring. It came out again in 2007 or 2008 and they flew off the shelf.
Ray doesn’t think he will ever run out of ideas. He has a huge archive of idea and sketchbooks. His designs go beyond just fishing into paleontology and the natural world and they aren’t all pun or jokes. So he can be funny or not and cover a wide array of subjects.
Most people know Ray from the t-shirts but he’s done bigger pieces as well. Usually he’s doing large paintings and prints and the shirts are on the side. He has done large murals for universities and government things. He’s always wanted to sell his original art for big money, and he’s had good prices for originals, but he’s always liked the egalitarian “art for the masses” attitude. Art on a t-shirt is art that everyone can have - it shouldn’t be for the wealthy alone. He was trained as a printmaker and that trade is all about making multiples. That was the everyman’s art back in the middle ages. They were kind of the first t-shirts.
Was having such a big t-shirt business a master plan? No, Ray says, it just took off on him and he was shocked by how popular the shirts were.
Back in summer of 1983 Ray was out of graduate school and was teaching at his Alma Mater in Kansas. He wanted to be a college professor, but it’s hard to get that job as a new MFA. He was looking for a day job and his big sister Kate was living in Ketchikan and she and her husband started a little seafood shop on the dock in Ketchikan. They offered him a summer job.
Ray comes from a family of 6 kids and three of his siblings were already living in Alaska. 4 of the 6 of them have since made Alaska their home even though they grew up all over the place as Air Force brats.
Kate and Bill offered him a job running the store and Ray came up here to sell fish on the docks. He made a t-shirt for the business - which was called Hallelujah Halibut. Ray found Alaska appealed to him. He taught part-time that fall at University of Alaska Southeast campus and he worked on the slime line at canneries and had a studio. He began painting fish.
In the summer of ‘84 he printed up a bunch of t-shirts of his original designs for a seafood festival in town. He brought a couple hundred of the shirts to the show and sold out of them in three days pretty much. The shirt said “Let’s Spawn” and had a salmon on it.
He had a few shirts left over and he took those shirts to a local seafood store and wholesaled them for $1 per shirt profit. The store sold those shirts quickly and wanted more and that was the beginning of it.
Then he and his wife took the ferry around southeast Alaska with a little catalog of drawings of the shirts and he took orders. A bunch of stores ordered them and many of the stores still sell them.
Then he got a printer in Seattle who took it to the next level. That printer hired sales reps and they sold to stores in Anchorage, Seattle, all over the Northwest, and eventually all over the nation. His t-shirt sales were gangbusters in the early 90s. They had outlets in every state and even the Canadian provinces. It got to a point where it almost collapsed in on itself. The printer sold the company to another guy and the new guy took on all kinds of other artists and grew an art department. They put Ray’s stuff on the backburner and so when the contract ran out he signed up with another printer in Tacoma with more modest ambitions.
He’s been with that printer for 20+ years. Post Industrial Press is the printer name.
Ray doesn’t know how many shirts he’s sold over the years but he thinks it’s in the millions over several decades. The shirts are part of the geologic footprint on the planet.
The only online source is at TrollArt.com but he has retailers in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and some outlets in California and Canada and out east. He also does stickers, calendars, magnets, and all that.
Ray has two museum exhibits right now - one at University Alaska Fairbanks - the dinosaur exhibit - and one in Kansas. Those are floating around the country. He has a lot of irons in the fire.
Why does his art resonate so well culturally? Ray tries to be true to himself - he has to think it’s funny or cool or it looks good. He doesn’t like to pander to an audience - he believes visual artists should do work for themselves and hold themselves to a standard. Then you run it up the flagpole and see what works. He doesn’t pander, but he has a feedback loop with the audience.
Alaska is its own unique world or tribe. We’re different here. We are proud of this place even though there are a lot of issues we face.
Around fishing - there’s sport fishing, commercial fishing, the science side of it - there’s a ton of depth to the subject. But in the end the work speaks for itself. You can look at a piece of art and see if there’s depth to it or if it resonates.
If Ray Troll were to give advice to someone starting out in art and commerce: it takes ambition. You have to work at it and get your stuff out there and hit the pavement. Ray shows up to work at his studio 40-60 hours a week like a zealot. He believes in the work and being bold enough to put your foot in the door and tell people to check something out. You have to have the guts to walk in a store and talk to the buyer.
How much has the art business changed with the advent of social media? It’s a different world, but Ray thinks it’s a benefit that people can grow a global audience quickly. That said, the world is flooded with imagery so it’s tougher, but you can get a follower and grow it organically with your friends and peers.
Ray tries to meet his own deadlines but as Douglas Adams says, “I love deadlines, especially the sound of them whooshing by.”
Salmonfest. Ray wouldn’t say he was a founder, but he was part of the chain that helped ignite it with a group of people. Salmonfest is a wonderful event that happens in August every year. This year is going to be number 10, but Ray doesn’t know if it’s going to go on with Covid.
Nine years ago it started as an event to focus on stopping Pebble Mine. Ray’s brother Tim had a place out of Dillingham and has been very involved in protecting salmon habitat out in Bristol Bay. He introduced Ray to Anders Gustafson who put on a few rock n roll events against Pebble. Ray thought that idea was cool and called Anders up out of the blue and Anders liked the idea. Ray wanted art to be part of the festival and did the art for free for the festival. The idea floundered for a bit, but then Jim Stearns took it.
Ray has been doing the art for the festival for 9 years but is now handing it off to the next generation. The festival pays for itself now.
At the beginning it was called SalmonStock and it was focused on Pebble Mine - but when Jim took it over it morphed into SalmonFest.
Anders rolled around the state looking for spots and he called Ray one day and told him he found the spot - Ninilchik Fairgrounds - and it was perfect. That became the spot for several reasons: 1) it has a highway 2) within striking distance of Anchorage 3) the proximity of Homer as the Cosmic Village by the Sea and the cultural fit there. It’s right near the ocean which is beautiful. It’s a magical place.
Ray’s been to most of the Salmonfest events but not all of them.
Where are we with Pebble Mine? The governor and president and EPA are all aligning to be more pro-mineral extraction so the fight against Pebble Mine is not over. It’s a celebration of the natural world - through salmon.
We’re dealing with a lot of headwinds economically. What was it like here during the last oil crisis and are there parallels to that time? The oil fields were cranking more in the late 70s. We staked our future on that resource and don’t have another source to pay for this state. Tourism is the only other thing so we’ve been really crippled. In a way salmon are our last hope - and it reinforces the message of taking care of the natural world. We’re looking at no cruise ships in southeast Alaska for the summer and plummeting oil prices. Ray hopes the rebound is quick and people are eager to get back to work but people need to do it cautiously. Ray thinks the natural world is our salvation and if there’s a silver lining there might not be as much pressure on resource extraction.
The pulp mill in Sitka closed in the mid-90s. That was a big economic blow to the town and they lost 10% of the population, but that wasn’t a sustainable industry and the town survived and thrived under tourism. Alaska has the last bits of untapped wilderness - vast stretches of it - and thousands of miles of coastline. Ray has hope for our future up here.
What is the most underrated town or place to see in Alaska? Petersburg. It’s beautiful. The big cruise ships can’t get in there. It’s a few thousand norwegian fishermen who settled there with native people. IT’s a cool small town vibe and it’s very beautiful. They have this festival in May every year that Ray’s band has headlined. It used to be called “Little Norway” but they call it MayFest now to be more inclusive. Ray has a soft spot for Petersburg. Devil’s Thumb is in the distance and it’s quite idyllic. There are beautiful trails and great people. It’s basically a fishing town.
Some of these most special towns are fishing towns and aren’t too accessible by tourists.