Uncle Reefa: Underground No More

The cult classic t-shirts from Uncle Reefa are making a comeback.
Uncle Reefa: Underground No More
Courtesy of Uncle Reefa

In the mid-1960’s during the onset of the T-Shirt Revolution in America, Fred Fillah began his t-shirt endeavors in the dining room of his apartment. First making shirts for friends, it was not long before he was designing, producing, and selling the shirts. He named his company, Corporation T-Shirt, a phrase Fred picked up from the song ‘I am the Walrus’ by The Beatles.

By the late 60s, most of Fred’s contemporaries had experimented with pot, or had adopted the high lifestyle; Fred was no exception. He imagined how cool it would be to develop a line of t-shirts that he and his friends would enjoy. The designs would be a fun and it would be an eclectic series that would reflect the lifestyle of the marijuana culture.

He would begin marketing those shirts under the business moniker Uncle Reefa’s Local Produce. His crop would consist of a colorful array of t-shirts brilliantly emblazoned with marijuana artwork that reflected his lifestyle. Since Fred’s illustration skills were limited, he set his sights on hiring some of the ‘highest’ freelance art talent he could find. The result was a series of weed shirt graphics that he could be proud of. In doing so, Uncle Reefa was elevated to the forefront among early originators of marijuana shirt designs.

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Fillah grew his endeavor in his basement. During the day, he took orders for his newly-minted Uncle Reefa shirts and made personal deliveries in his VW bus to boutiques and head shops in the Washington D.C. metro area. At night, he produced more to replenish the retailers’ shrinking stock. The counterculture was just beginning to mushroom in America and Uncle Reefa designs were in high demand. Nevertheless, Uncle Reefa t-shirt graphic images were taboo in schools and in other places where polite society gathered. It was an era when rock stars were denied visas into the U.S. for conviction of possession.

At the time, possession of pot was not only frowned upon, but it was also illegal and punishable by jail time. “Legalized or not, the herb shirts sold like hotcakes,” he remembers. “At first I was afraid that kids wouldn’t buy them because they didn’t want to advertise their use of an illegal substance.” But everyone loved them.

Uncle Reefa expanded with a growing crew of talented employees attending boutique trade shows around the country and selling to stores around the world. Uncle Reefa was a hit everywhere!  They were one of the originators of the cannabis t-shirt and their work was so appreciated that the pot generation consumed it like secondhand smoke. Another highlight for the fledgling company came in 1970 when Fillah’s company became the official shirt printer for a newly formed non-profit advocacy group NORML. Fred clearly saw eye-to-eye with their leadership on the top issues of the day.

In some areas, Uncle Reefa tees became a cult classic. Recently, a vintage Uncle Reefa shirt from the early 70s was listed online for the price of more than two ounces of mighty fine weed.

In the ensuing years, Fred drifted away from his Uncle Reefa roots and entered the world of rock and roll tour t-shirts. He got noticed as he honed his skills at designing and producing tees when concert marketing giant, Brockum International, contacted him to see if he would be interested in designing and printing rock tour shirts for them. For the next few years, Fillah designed and printed tour shirts for The Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U-2, Queen, Kansas, Billy Joel, Clapton, and a long list of other rock icons.

To expand on their opportunities, Fillah teamed up with the NFL, NHL, and MLB and their respective players associations, as well as with colleges across the country. Through their designing and marketing, they became an advocate for pro athletes, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for them and their charities.

Uncle Reefa: Underground No More
Fred Fillah in his basement hand printing Uncle Reefa tees, 1971; Courtesy of Uncle Reefa

The Resurgence of Uncle Reefa

A choir of voices told Fillah that he needed to make those Uncle Reefa tees that he had created decades before. Most recently, Fillah’s encouragement came from friends and family. His twenty-one year old daughter Carol finally told him, “Dad, all of my friends want you to start making the Uncle Reefa t-shirts.” Apparently, her friends were seeing vintage shirts on the internet…and everyone wanted one.

A little research proved that her friends were right—the Reefer Days were still alive and doing very well! The only thing that was missing was a reboot on Uncle Reefa t-shirts. While enduring COVID, Fillah reached out and assembled a diverse group of the industry’s top names in graphic design. Through their talent and mind-blowing creativity, they created what Fillah likes to call ‘Uncle Reefa 2.0.’

Fillah is making plans to hit the trade show circuit with his most recent strain of Uncle Reefa shirts. According to him, the current crop of Uncle Reefa tees is just the beginning of an ever-expanding line of graphics—some of which are available online now and will soon be available at a retailer near you. The wealth of opportunity to create new graphics is virtually endless. So many ideas, with so many directions. Marijuana is cool again, and this time for the right reason: the legalization of recreational marijuana use.

Fillah is extremely excited to have the opportunity to once again be a part of the cultural revolution, as cannabis becomes an acceptable part of American life. For Fillah, many doors are opening now that were once closed to him while marketing in the 60s and 70s. To relive some of his fond memories would be a dream come true…. especially experiencing that feeling again and sharing it with family. Fillah’s wife, Jody, his grandson, Fred IV, and his youngest daughter, Carol, will be a big part of Uncle Reefa’s reemergence.

This journey is a wonderful topping to a life that has been exceedingly kind to Fillah in almost every way possible.  As he moves forward, he looks to make many new contacts…and maybe rekindle some of the old ones as well.

Waxing poetic, Fillah likes quoting one of his favorite musical artists, Brent Dennen. “I don’t want to be someone who can’t live up to what I’ve already done. Here comes the comeback, the kid is back, back on track. Everybody loves a comeback!” 

With both humility and appreciation, Fillah introduces his latest series of Uncle Reefa T-shirts, available to retailers at wholesale pricing and to individuals online at www.UncleReefa.com.

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