The “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirt is one of the most iconic tees of all time. In fact, Matt James of Pop Culture Died in 2009 names them in his list of essential 2000s style elements and described their origins as follows: “These shirts became a hot item in the early ‘00s after they started being sold at the trendy Teenage Millionaire on Melrose. Everybody from Ben Affleck to Pamela Anderson was spotted wearing one, and in recent years, I think I saw Lily Allen wear one on Instagram.”
What most people don’t know, though, is that the celebrity era of the T-shirt was actually their resurrection. In truth, they originated with a man named Van Zan Frater, now 65, my lifelong neighbor who lives in the cul-de-sac directly across the street from my parents’ house. It was 2008 when Frater first told me he was the real creator of these shirts, from the convenience of our sidewalk while setting out to walk his dog. At the time, I was a high school student who regularly took the subway to West Hollywood to shop at Teenage Millionaire and take faux-paparazzi shots on Melrose in their T-shirts. I also read every tabloid I could get my hands on, not to mention Perez Hilton and the lesser remembered celebrity news site Pink Is The New Blog. Needless to say, I was mesmerized by Frater’s tale (and the apparent theft of this story/shirt).
What I didn’t know back then is that this catchphrase and the tee that followed was inspired by Frater’s own brush with death shortly after moving to L.A. in the 1980s. This is his incredibly wild story.
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I came to L.A. to start a singing and acting career around 1980. Three of my sisters and my baby brother had all moved here from Texas. I stayed in Oklahoma for nine or ten months right before that, and in that time, I had about five jobs. There was a lot of prejudice there. I worked at a plant with the son of the county’s grand dragon, the leader of its section of the Ku Klux Klan, and we got into a fight.
So I had to get out of Oklahoma. Either I was going to kill somebody, or somebody was going to kill me and my brother. And like I said, I wanted to pursue an acting career, plus I had family here in L.A. I didn’t necessarily wanna win an Oscar or get my name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I just wanted to see if I could do it. My dad wanted me to stay in Texas and be a farmer, ‘cause that’s where I grew up — on farms and stuff. But I didn’t wanna be 50 years old and look back and say, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda…”
When I got to L.A., my sisters began taking me out to a dance club called the Red Onion. I really liked it. I was athletic and a good dancer. I met a girl there with these pretty, cat-like eyes. She used to call me her cowboy, because I didn’t have that many clothes. I basically had cowboy boots, jeans and one of those snap cowboy shirts, while most of the other guys were dressed up real GQ style. She was really impressed that this black cowboy was out there holding his own with the GQ guys.
Eventually, she told me to give her a call after she got out of work. She worked at some hospital where the shifts were from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night. She said, “Come on by. I’m gonna take my bath, and by the time I get outta my bath, you should be here.” I was like, “booty call,” you know?
I got in my car — a 1971 Mach One, red with black racing stripes, like James Bond drives in Diamonds Are Forever, and personal license plates from Oklahoma that read “VAN ZAN” — and headed over to her place. The problem was I got lost in a bad part of town. When I stopped at a liquor store to use a pay phone, about 10 of these young guys started approaching me: “Hey man, you wanna buy some drugs?” The youngest one was probably 10 or 11 years old; the oldest might have been 14 or 15.
I’d never seen kids out there slinging like that before. So I told them, “What are you doing out here at this time of night ‘cause it’s after 10 o’clock. You need to be at home getting ready for school. Where your mom at? Where your dad at?” You know, I’m scolding ‘em.
But I’m in their neighborhood; I’m a stranger. They knew my car wasn’t from there. I was just so naïve. So naïve, in fact, that I went up to the phone booth, picked up the phone and dialed the girl’s number. She answered, and I said, “Look sweetheart, I’m lost. I need to…” All of a sudden, somebody hit me in the back of my head, and my feet were swept from under me. I fell to the ground, dropped the phone and just got pounded and kicked. The whole time I was getting beat up, people were going into that liquor store, and nobody stopped and said anything.
At last, I finally got my hands on one of them and pulled him down. I thought that would make the rest of them run away. But no — when I had him down, he turned around and pulled a gun on me. Then, about three or four of the others pulled guns out, too. I was like, “Oh shit. Oh god. Oh lord.” A million thoughts went through my mind. I started thinking, “Lord God, what can I say? Jesus, help me. Jesus, save me.” One of ‘em was talking shit like, “Kill this motherfucker! Blow his fucking brains out.”
I was crying and begging ‘em not to kill me. I said, “You don’t wanna kill me. I work with the NAACP, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and Operation Push and Meals On Wheels.” Next, for whatever reason, I was like, “Jesus is my homeboy.” After that, I looked at each of them and said, “Jesus is your homeboy. He’s your homeboy. He’s all our homeboys.” This one kid made eye contact with me and said, “Jesus is my homeboy, too, man,” and told the rest of ‘em, “Let him go.”
I jumped in my car and drove to where I saw a laundromat down the street with some phones on the side of the building. This time, I kept my car running just in case. I called my date again, and her grandmother answered. She told me that her granddaughter wasn’t there; she was in her car looking for me because she heard somebody jumping me. She said, “Get back on the road ‘til you see her car.”
Before I could, though, a dude started walking toward me. He stopped and asked, “You got a light for my cigarette?” I set down the phone, pulled out my lighter and gave him a light. As he walked away, I picked back up the phone and told my date’s grandmother, “He just wanted a light.” I spoke too soon, however. Almost immediately after the words left my mouth, he had pulled a gun on me — not even 10 minutes after the first robbery.
He told me, “Hang up the Goddamn phone. Hang that motherfucker up. Kill the car, give me the keys and open the trunk.” I hung up, killed the car and walked around to the trunk. “Put your hands behind your back,” he instructed as he pulled out handcuffs. I was like, “I gotta do something.” I knew that if he put those handcuffs on me and put me in the trunk, I was dead.
I remembered when I was a boy, me and my brothers and a couple of my friends in Texas would go hunting with our fathers. They’d build a fire, and we’d sit around and the old men would tell stories. Around one of those campfires, my dad once told me, “Never let a man tie you up, ‘cause he can do anything to you once he ties you up. And if he got a gun on you, make him kill you before he ties you up.”
After that thought about my father, I said to the guy with the gun, “Fuck you! You want these keys, get ‘em yourself,” and I threw ‘em on the ground at the trunk of the car. Next, I used all of my athletic ability and military training — I’m a Vietnam-era vet who served in the military — and asked God to be on my side, ‘cause I didn’t think He’d let me survive the first experience for my life to end like this just a few minutes later. I grabbed the gun and twisted the mugger’s arm so hard it felt like I’d broken it. At the same time, I pulled the trunk down on his arm. It worked: He dropped the gun in the trunk.
I pulled him out of the trunk, hit him and did a roundhouse kick on him. He fell against the laundromat’s exterior wall before falling to the ground. I reached into the trunk and found the pistol. I grabbed my keys and yelled, “Don’t fucking move. I got you now. I ain’t gonna take your life, so don’t you fucking move.”
But when I turned my back for a split second after spotting a couple guys down the street, he rushed me to the ground, and I ended up shooting him.
I was freaked out. All I could see was blood forming underneath his head on the concrete. I immediately left the scene, aware that my out-of-state plates that read “VAN ZAN” were an easy tell if anyone had seen what had happened.
Eventually, I got to my sisters’ house. My date had called them and told them I may have gotten jumped, so they were relieved to see me. I guess my date had spotted the scene of the second robbery while driving around looking for me, but she couldn’t see who was going into the ambulance. My sisters had already started calling trauma centers.
Once everything had calmed down, I just kept thinking, ‘Jesus is my homeboy’ saved my life. I gotta do something with that.
I had a friend named Vondell Jones who was a journalist. We would sit around smoking weed and see more and more innocent victims of gang violence on the nightly news. I was like, “We should put ‘Jesus is my homeboy’ on a T-shirt, sell it and use some of the money to help innocent victims of gang violence.” He agreed.
We had a bunch of artists sketch different versions of the shirt. We didn’t want him to look too white, like they often look. Honestly, we didn’t want him to look too Latino or too black either. We wanted him to look racially ambiguous, so whoever looked at it could see a part of themselves. A guy I knew from my day job at the V.A. ended up creating the original image for us.
In the early days, I’d set up shop at flea markets. I had gray, black and white tees, because those aren’t gang colors. I had matching ball caps, too. The hats were $5; the T-shirts were $10. My family was also performing a song I wrote called, “Jesus Is My Homeboy,” but Von and I broke up because he didn’t think my family was committed enough to the music side of things. He signed a waiver of any connection or interests with Jesus Is My Homeboy, and it became mine.
A few years went by, and I wasn’t really selling the shirt anymore. The place that was making them had been looted and burned during the Rodney King riots. Somehow, the only thing that survived was my silk screen with “Jesus Is My Homeboy.” A few years after that, this guy named Doug Williams came across it. He was into selling vintage shirts; some guy owed him money, and he gave him the screen instead. I was also told he found it in a dumpster, so I don’t know. Either way, he resurrected it, as I like to say.
He got with another friend of his, named Chris, and they started working together making new shirts. Chris was dating a woman who was a wardrobe stylist for movies at the time, so I think she maybe gave the Jesus Is My Homeboy shirt to some people.
That’s when my niece called me one night around 2008. She asked, “Uncle Van, do you still have any Jesus Is My Homeboy T-shirts?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Here, on page 21 of People magazine, Brad Pitt, Lara Flynn Boyle and Pamela Anderson are wearing your T-shirt. And there’s an article here about some guys, Teenage Millionaire, who say they’re the ones who came up with it.”
I put on one of my T-shirts and went down the street to Vons. I get a People magazine, open it up, and sure enough, I’m like, “Whoa, that’s cool.”
I called a lawyer. He came out to my house in the Valley. He’d already seen the shirt on TV, because Jillian Barberie had done a segment about it on the morning news. She had interviewed Williams on-air. He said something like, they wanted to put an icon on a T-shirt and Jesus popped into their minds while they were in one of their grandmother’s backyards. We saved a tape of that, and I brought out dated recordings my friends had made of my family’s old performances of the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” song, including one in which a model comes out wearing the shirt after the song is over. The guy who drew it came over as well and gave the lawyer a bunch of details.
The lawyer called Teenage Millionaire and told them that he represented the real creator of the shirt. Whoever answered the phone said, “We have a lot of people claim ownership, and they don’t have any proof to back it up. We’ve shut ‘em down. If you don’t have any proof, we’ll shut you down too.”
My lawyer responded, “The original owner still has some of the T-shirts and the copyrights. We’ll see you in court.” They called him back in 10 minutes and said, “Here’s our lawyer’s name. He’d like to meet with you.”
When we did, my lawyer said, “Van Zan, tell them your story,” which I proceeded to do. Then my wife went off. She was like, “How dare y’all take his stuff and make it your own? He has nightmares about this.” When she finally got out of breath and couldn’t talk anymore, I said, “I wanna thank you for what you’ve done, ‘cause it doesn’t matter to me how Jesus’ name gets out. What matters is that it got out, and you guys took it to places I couldn’t. So you guys are the messengers — just like everybody who wears the T-shirt — but it saved my life.” Soon after, we signed a deal.
As for their fame, Doug told me Pamela Anderson or Madonna got one and loved it, so she ordered a bunch for her friends. That started it. At their height, they were selling for $25 or $30 at Urban Outfitters. They made “Mary Is My Homegirl” shirts, too, which were a dud, partially because they have such a traditional looking Mary on them. I even feel like Kanye West was inspired by the shirts to write “Jesus Walks,” because if you watch the episode of Punk’d where Ashton Kutcher pranks him, someone on his staff is wearing a Jesus Is My Homeboy T-shirt.
They made something like $5 million, but I only got a small percentage of it — like six-figures — but that’s okay. Once it was resurrected, nobody knew anything about me or my story, which is why it’s now available on my website. I still, though, haven’t talked much about that second part of the night.
I can tell you that one day in the late 1980s, I was at my mom’s house when this detective called. I thought it was a casting director, ‘cause I got calls over there like that all the time, and we were taught to answer them by saying our name really clearly. I answered the phone by saying, “Hello, this is Van Zan. Can I help you?” He was like, “Van Zan Frater?” I said, “Yeah.”
He responded, “This is detective so-and-so. I need to talk to you. We got an anonymous phone call that said you were involved in a robbery a few years ago.”
I said, “Look man, I didn’t rob anybody. I was robbed. I was able to get away.”
“We still wanna talk to you about it,” he told me.
Reluctantly, I told him I’d come over to the station. They put me in a room and asked me what happened and if I could find the place again. I said I wasn’t sure. They asked me to take a ride with them, so I did. We drove back over to the neighborhood where I thought it had happened. I took ‘em almost there, but I didn’t wanna say exactly where. The thing is, they kept going down the street where it happened. I was acting like, “Go down that way…”
Eventually, we went back to the interrogation room and they said, “We want you to look at these files until you identify somebody.” There was a stack of files in front of me; I went through ‘em and told ‘em, “No.” But I was lying — I did see the person.
The detectives took the files and came back with two of them, one of which was the guy’s. I said, “I don’t know. It might’ve been that one.” I was over there for about five hours. They told me, “Your story is really believable, and it’s hard-to-believe. But if this happened around the time you said it happened, we have a series of murders being committed where the victims were handcuffed, put in the trunk of a car, shot in the head and the car set on fire. Chances are, you ran into that guy.”
I felt real bad after it happened — what I was forced to do. But after I talked to those detectives, I thought, Wow, was I put there for a purpose?
I can’t say that for certain. Here’s what I do know, though: I wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for “Jesus is my homeboy.”