the costacos brothers

words: chris isenberg and adam shopkorn

art: the costacos brothers

In an ‘80s sports poster landscape dominated by two major labels, Sports Illustrated and Nike, the Costacos Brothers were a scrappy, Seattle independent that managed to break through and make it big.

John and Constantine Costacos began as t-shirt entrepreneurs at the University of Washington. In 1984, their first creation, “Purple Reign,” a play on Prince’s album and the Huskies vaunted defense, became a huge seller. Two years later, they saw an opportunity in the emerging sports poster market and approached Seattle Seahawks safety Kenny Easley, who they cast as “The Enforcer”.

Originally operating without league licenses and therefore unable to show athletes in uniform, the Brothers relied on an over-the-top expression of player personalities and drew on color and numbers to create a subtle association with teams. Their first major hit, “Mad Mac”, which cross-pollinated Chicago Quarterback Jim McMahon and the Road Warrior, put them on the map. It also helped define a macho kitsch aesthetic that seemed to draw equal inspiration from professional wrestling, Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies, Mad Magazine and VHS-era pornography.

It turned out to be a powerful cocktail for 8-12 year old boys creating their identities on their bedroom walls, and the Costacos Brothers quickly became a national force, distributing through both sporting goods and toy stores across the country. As their budget and reach expanded, they were able to work with the biggest football, basketball and baseball stars and produced such classics as Lawrence Taylor “The Terminator”, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire “The Bash Brothers”, and Dominique Wilkins “Highlight Zone”. Their success ultimately led to licensing deals with MLB, NFL and the NBA, but their later league-approved creations lacked the gonzo energy of their early work. In 1996, they sold their business to a publishing house and moved on to other pursuits.

Aside from a few obscure fan sites, their work has largely been ignored until their rediscovery by art advisor and curator Adam Shopkorn. After unearthing a forgotten Wayman Tisdale poster in his childhood bedroom in New York, Shopkorn began an increasingly compulsive search for vintage sports posters that led him to the Costacos Brothers.

A long-time appreciator of Jeff Koons’ work, Shopkorn was alive to the possibility that sports advertising fantasy could be contextualized as high art. As a companion to a series of glass tanks filled with basketballs floating in perfect balance, Koons’ first solo exhibition, “Equilibrium”, featured factory issue Nike posters like “Dr. Dunkenstein” and “The Secretary of Defense” reframed and presented as his own, editioned work. For Shopkorn, the Costacos work felt equally worthy of elevation and preservation. Over the course of a year, Shopkorn went about cornering the market of mint Costacos Brothers’ posters, hunting them them first on ebay, then in the basements of Midwestern sporting goods stores and finally tracking down John and Constantine Costacos themselves. Several lengthy conversations led to the idea of a retrospective, and fortunately the Brothers’ father had both saved one of every poster his sons had ever made and was willing to fill in the gaps of Shopkorn’s collection for a 2011 exhibition. Victory Journal asked Shopkorn to interview the Brothers and get and get the backstory on some of our favorite posters.

The Terminator Lawrence Taylor
JOHN COSTACOS: During the shoot at Giants Stadium, LT’s agent bet him a hundred bucks that he couldn’t throw a football into the upper deck. Taylor took him up on his offer. I couldn’t believe the power that he threw it up there with. He got it pretty damn near close to the upper decks. Our Greek buddies, Ted and George Germanakos, were extras in the shoot. I remember when they went over and fired up the cart that they take injured players off the field with. They all hopped on and started looping around the stadium in it. That was pretty funny seeing my friends doing donuts in this cart in the middle of Giants Stadium. The guy draped over the goalpost might be George.

We bought those little plastic footballs and then we went to the Army Surplus store where we bought pineapple grenades and we unscrewed the handle. There was one Army Surplus store that we went to and the grenades were empty. The guy at the counter leaned over to me and said quietly under his breath “You want them filled?” I said “Excuse me?” He repeated it. I said, “You could do that?” He said “Yeah.” So I said, “How much will that cost?” And he said “About 20 bucks a piece.” And I said, “No thanks.”

The Bash Brothers Jose Canseco & Mark McGwire
JC: We had paid a lot of dough to use that stadium and Canseco’s pants were too short when we got there. When he put the pants on, he looked up with that little kid look like, “You don’t expect me to wear these.” So I cut the hem out and lengthened them and taped them so it was not any problem, but it was one of those “Uh-oh” moments. Canseco was kind of a jerk to be honest. McGwire was really nice, but his agent asked for more money after we struck a deal for the poster. What an asshole that guy was.

Chicago Vice Jim McMahon & Walter Payton
JC: I had just met Walter Payton for the first time. He came early and brought the guns and his Lamborghini and then left. That was his own Lamborghini that was given to him by the Reebok guys when he broke Jim Brown’s record.

We were originally supposed to shoot at 6PM, but it was so cold that day that our strobe blew up when we were setting up the shot, and the photographer had to go and get another one. So Payton comes back into the locker room at five minutes before six. Jim McMahon’s in there eating Pizza and drinking beer. Payton says hi to McMahon and I have to tell Payton that we’ll be late….And you know this is Walter Payton? Major football royalty! I told him we’d be ready to go by 6:45. And he looks at me and he says, “6:45?” And I said “Yeah.” He goes “What time is it, now?” And I said “It’s 6 o’clock.” And he says “And now you tell me we’re going to start at 6:45?” I said, “It’s only going to take a few minutes.” He’s dead serious. He’s looking at me and he’s getting pissed off. He says to me, “Look, I don’t do business like that. In the contract in writing it says 6 o’clock and you’re not ready. I don’t do business this way. I’m leaving. I’m sorry.” And he walks out. I’m looking over at McMahon to appeal for him to do something and he’s totally silent, just sitting there eating his pizza looking at me. And what am I going to do? Am I going to tell Walter Payton, “Get back here”? I couldn’t do that. So he gets to the door and he opens the door and he gets halfway out the door and he turns around and then smiles and says, “Ha ha, I’m just fucking with you.”

H-Bomb Herschel Walker
JC: Remember this was 1986-1987, so we were shooting with film and there was no Photoshop. We couldn’t take a separate picture of an explosion. We had to shoot it all together. The pyrotechnic guy did one as a test before Herschel got there. You could feel the heat of the explosion. He set it all up and said Herschel needs to be this far away like maybe 40 or 50 feet. We told Herschel, “You don’t need to worry about anything except getting into the running pose.” We got Herschel in position and it blew up. All of a sudden, “BOOM!” It was loud and it was hot and Herschel jumped up in the air because it scared the crap out of him. We lost the running pose. But the big flame or the big ball of fire stayed visual long enough for him to get the shot again.

Herschel was a really good sport about it. What agent would let his player do that now? What player would do that now? This guy is an NFL player and he has a big career and everything and that bomb was really hot. You think about that now. Our insurance company would not let us do that now. They’d be like take a photo, take a photo of Herschel and use Photoshop.

Madison Square Guardian Patrick Ewing
JC: Patrick was really cooperative but the dogs were growling a lot. And he was a great sport because he was extraordinarily uncomfortable with the two big dogs. He was really happy when we were done. I remember asking if you’re not comfortable with this then we don’t have to do it and I remember him saying, “Well, I’m not really that comfortable, but I’ll do it.” And the dog handler kept telling Patrick that the dog was not going to bite him.

We brought that fence in and built it in the studio. It was not on location. The Bergen Fencing sign could have been a friend of the photographer, who we were doing a favor for. Or we may have put that sign in there to get a deal on the fence. That very well could have been possible.