HISTORY OF BABYLON BURNING - by Steve PattonI, Steve Patton, started Babylon Burning in 1976 in my house in Bernal Heights (known in the 1930's as Red Hill because so many socialists, communists and labor organizers lived there), a section south of the Mission District in San Francisco. My roommate proceeded to print a batch of one-color print T-shirts for his karate class, and asked me to help. I got so stoked on the process that I gave him $100 for his supplies, and he said I would never make it in this business. I set up a little print shop in our utility room in the back. I jury-rigged a four-color setup on a long table. It was very primitive, with a high reject rate. I would hang up the shirts to air dry, then take them down the street to the laundromat to heat set the ink in the dryer. I accumulated a few customers as I learned the business through my voracious consumption of trade journals and books from the library.
In the meantime, I was toying with various names for my new business. Since one of my new customers was a Bay Area reggae band called Obeah, and I was so taken with the music, I decided to have a reggae name. I first picked Crazy Baldhead Productions, after the term coined by Bob Marley in one of his early songs. Even though I was bald I felt a little too shy to exclaim this fact. So chose Babylon Burning after the Ruts song and listening to many hours of roots music. I still have the collection of 331/3 vinyl lps, some of which are very rare. I scoured many a used record outlet looking for the one or two gems.
I then went to work for a guy in his one-man shop and ended up managing it for him. He moved, and I stayed with a few of his accounts he didn't want, like the Suspender Factory of S.F.. I figured out how to print four straps at once on several portable pallets. My friends Jerry, Bruce, and Joan all helped me out. We had a walk- in dryer made of heat lamps and several metal rolling racks to load with hangers draped with the printed straps (or T-shirts). The dryer held two racks. We burned many T-shirt sleeves with this method. Again, primitive.
I moved in 1980 to a retail store on Valencia at 21St St., next door to Old Wives Tails Bookstore. Jerry became my partner at that time. We set up a retail T-shirt shop in the front and print shop in the back. We bought used silkscreens and one color and 4-color hand presses at blow out auctions around the City. We registered the business, got licensed, took accounting classes, and made payroll and paid our taxes. But it wasn't easy for sure.
It was fun though. Across the street on the kitty-corner Peter Belsito rented the place and in the basement he ran an unlicensed punk music scene called the Omnivore, I think. We made some great shirts for him back then, and saw some great local bands. We printed many popular T-shirts for groups like Act Up!, Central American Solidarity Committee, Mother Jones magazine, the Women's Building, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, etc. Our work steadily improved and our reputation for quality, honesty, the only union T-shirt shop in San Francisco, and the first green shop set us apart from most other shops early on. We never threw away any ink: we recycled it and made all-purpose black to this day. We never advertised except for our Yellow Pages ad under T-shirts; the rest was word of mouth.
In 1987 we had a big rent increase, so we moved into a unit on the fourth floor of the Southend Warehouse in Soma at 2nd & Brannan, and quit the retail business. Jerry left to become a nurse, Bruce left to open his own gallery in Oakland, and Joan left to become a recognized paper maker and art teacher. I instead bought Your's Truly from our client, a preprint T-shirt line in the gift store industry, and my wife Laurel joined me as the Art Director. We printed for YT as well as our regular clients. In the 1989 earthquake we only lost one can of ink from the shelf! The walls were 18" thick brick and we were on the Rincon Hill rock. We received another rent increase, so we again moved to our present location at 63 Bluxome on the ground floor. We finally bought our first automatic 6 color press on a factory lease and we increased our production by at least three fold. The business grew to 3/4 of a million dollars in sales, which for us was stupendous. We finally closed Yours Truly around 1998 (it was too much to have two businesses to focus on). In 1999 I was pretty burned out and decided to sell the business to Brian and Mike, two of my eager loyal employees. So I did, and since then I've worked for the Census Bureau, been a bill collector (ugh), became a glass block installer which I liked until it tanked last year. Also I have recently been a Solar Energy Consultant, and a stainless steel sheet metal fabricator for the shop that makes the pyramid shaped recycling bins on the street corners of San Francisco.
I'm a Vietnam veteran and member of VVAW, Vet's for Peace and Veterans for Common Sense.
And I've been surfing since 1959. Although now it's strictly longboards.
Oh, and I never finished my Bachelors of Art degree, in art.