West Seattle brothers turned poster idea into classics for a generation
The Costacos brothers of West Seattle started a poster business featuring professional athletes that quickly grew into an empire. Their early work is featured in an exhibit in a New York gallery through Friday.
Seattle Times staff reporter
If you're a guy in your 30s, the work of two West Seattle brothers will bring back fond memories of the 1980s, when you were kid.
They are John and Tock Costacos, and 25 million to 30 million of their posters featuring pro athletes in comic-book-fantasy poses ended up on the bedroom walls of boys across the nation.
Did you hang on to the posters?
It turns out they're now considered art, currently exhibited at a New York City gallery. The show has gotten nice write-ups in such disparate publications as Sports Illustrated and The Wall Street Journal.
Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and hugely successful promoter of mixed martial arts, came to the show's opening and on the spot bought all 37 Costacos framed posters on display.
The posters were in pristine condition, and went for $1,500 to $2,500 each; originally they sold for $5 or so.
Every generation has its particular shared memories, whether Beanie Babies, Transformers or The Monkees.
For thousands of 1980s young American boys, it was the Costacos brothers' posters:
• Michael Jordan leaping as he is about to dunk the moon.
• Brian Bosworth in wraparound sunglasses, with a Playboy Playmate dressed like Dorothy in "Wizard of Oz" clinging to him, and a cartoon road leading to the Space Needle and Kingdome.
• Jim McMahon in a "Mad Max" takeoff, titled "Mad Mac ... The Grid Warrior," holding a crossbow loaded with a toy football, a live bear cub at his feet (the bear nipped McMahon's leg but caused no injury).
• Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco in their Oakland Athletics days, dressed as the Blues Brothers, holding giant plastic baseball bats, in a poster titled "The Bash Brothers."
Says Adam Shopkorn, who put together the show at Salon 94 in New York, about the posters, "This was guerrilla-style photo shooting. The Costacos brothers were working with shoestring budgets."
Shopkorn, of course, is 33, exactly in the age bracket for the posters to mean a lot. He grew up with them on his bedroom wall at the Manhattan family apartment, and it was his idea to display them as art.
John Costacos, 50, and Tock Costacos, 51, graduated from West Seattle High and went to the University of Washington. John got a degree in business, and Tock (actual first name, Constantine) degrees in business and economics.
It was a T-shirt now famous in Husky lore that got them their start in the business: "Purple Reign," celebrating the UW football team's fantastic 1984 season that ended with an Orange Bowl win.
At that time, John remembers, he had no money and "I was literally trying to figure out a business I could do."
Then his radio alarm clock woke him up to Prince's "Purple Rain" and a marketing idea was born.
The shirt design showed a Husky descending from the sky to land on top of an opposing player who was captioned saying, "Oh Oh ... "
When University Book Store wouldn't carry the shirts, he had friends keep calling the store, asking if it carried them. The store responded to the perceived demand and began selling "Purple Reign."
If it sounds to you like the Costacos brothers hustled, and then hustled some more, you're right.
After the T-shirts, they began thinking about their next project. A salesperson at a local sporting-goods store told John that what customers wanted was a poster of Kenny Easley, then the star strong safety for the Seahawks.
John called Easley's agent, Leigh Steinberg, later cited as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Easley went for the concept.
Initially, the Costacos brothers didn't have any choice but to turn to fantasy poses for the athletes.
They didn't have licenses from the major leagues nor sports teams to use their logos or uniforms. The individual athletes, however, could cut their own deals, and got a percentage from poster sales.
So the brothers, then in their mid-20s, had to improvise.
They posed Easley in an alley right by F.X. McRory's by the Kingdome, wearing jeans and a leather jacket. On the right was a street sign reading, "Easley St.," with a garbage can by his side and remnants of football uniforms on the ground.
The caption was, "The Enforcer."
"It was bad-ass dramatic," Tock says. "You turn a player into a comic-book hero."
The Easley poster was the first the Costacos brothers shot, but it wasn't the first one released.
Nor was the second poster shot, featuring then-Los Angeles Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes.
The defensive standout flew coach to Seattle, and state Supreme Court Justice James Dolliver let Hayes sit in the courtroom in Olympia for the photo shoot, John Costacos said.
Hayes wore a judge's robe, and the poster said, "Lester's Court ... W. Receiver. Sentenced to four quarters of relentless intimidation, bone-jarring hits, and masterful interceptions. So be it. Judge Lester Hayes."
No, the first poster released featured Jim McMahon, the controversial quarterback who led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl win in 1986.
They had pitched McMahon, and when he liked their "Mad Mac" concept, the brothers put everything else on hold.
They borrowed $25,000 from their dad, Jerry Costacos, and two uncles.
McMahon couldn't wear a Chicago Bears logo, but the brothers could use the services of an animal trainer who rented out the bear cub for the photo shoot.
Friends in Chicago arranged for a professional photographer, and gathered together a power generator and five semi-trucks for that Road Warrior look. The friends found 30 other guys to wear football uniforms and non-logo blue helmets borrowed from a high school, and they posed in front of Soldier Field.
The entire shoot, including the brothers flying a red-eye from Seattle to save money, cost $5,000.
The McMahon poster was rushed into production. It was released in 1986 and became a sensation, especially after McMahon posed with it for an Associated Press photo that went nationwide.
It would have sold more than the 200,000 copies it did, says John, but the brothers didn't have a distribution system set up.
By the time they released their Michael Jordan poster in 1990, it sold 1.2 million copies.
The brothers eventually set up licensing agreements with the various major sports leagues.
And they also changed how the posters were put together, not flying in an athlete for a one-hour shoot (much appreciated by the athletes) but getting action shots provided by the league and photo-stripping graphics around the action shots. This was before Photoshop.
The New York gallery is honoring their earlier work, when the athletes posed in those fantasy settings.
In 1996, the brothers sold the company. In those 10 years, they had done posters of about 1,000 athletes. They basically didn't have to work again, although they do.
John Costacos still lives in Seattle, a few blocks from his folks' home. He writes screenplays and has a concept for a TV sports show.
Tock Costacos lives in the Lake Tahoe area, does volunteer work and helps out with the books for a beauty salon run by his wife's daughter.
The brothers were pleasantly surprised at their work being considered art, and seeing Alex Rodriguez and Cameron Diaz come to the opening.
"It's kind of campy, but it's cool," Tock says about the posters.
Says John about those 10 years of business, "I think we're the luckiest guys in the world."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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