Beyond T-shirts: Art, music and skateboard culture collide at San Antonio's Cat Palace

Situated on a rustic plot in Selma, the amusingly dubbed Cat Palace is named in honor of the felines that came with the wooded property.

click to enlarge From left: Jesse and Dawn Garza are the dynamic duo behind the Cat Palace; a before-and-after photo of a vintage skateboard deck restoration. - BRYAN RINDFUSS, JESSE GARZA
Bryan Rindfuss, Jesse Garza
From left: Jesse and Dawn Garza are the dynamic duo behind the Cat Palace; a before-and-after photo of a vintage skateboard deck restoration.

Finding one's true calling in life can be an elusive challenge. But for San Antonio native Jesse Garza, that lightbulb moment arrived quite early in life.

While in middle school, Jesse found himself in his friend's dad's print shop. He and his pals were there to obtain T-shirts for their straight-edge hardcore band Straightforward, a scene prerequisite.

"It was a mind-blowing experience to see his dad taking our artwork and cutting the stencil out, applying that to the screen and then physically printing the T-shirts," Garza recalled. "I don't even know how to describe it, really. It was probably one of the most memorable things I experienced in my childhood. And it was crazy because my buddies were just like, 'Oh cool, we're gonna get shirts!' But I'm over here just fascinated with the possibilities [of screen printing]."

Garza dove straight in without hesitation. He purchased a screen-printing kit from a craft store and started making "all kinds of crazy shirts" — including a tribute to the early '90s band Gameface that his wife Dawn still owns to this day.

"Back in 1989 or 1990, that was just something that was unobtainable," Garza said. "To a kid, you didn't think you could design a T-shirt. You always thought: If you want to be cool, you buy this shirt. I was like: If you want to be cool, you fucking make your own bootleg shirt. That's the ultimate."

Little did he know, those DIY tees would help him land a job at a professional print shop and pave the way for the Cat Palace — a multifaceted operation that marries his lifelong interests in art, music and skateboard culture.

Finding a balance

Jesse and Dawn Garza are classic high school sweethearts. He went to Harlandale, she to McCollum, and they met through friends at a gig. In a scenario fit for an indie rom-com, Jesse gave Dawn a demo tape with his phone number on it, she called him and they've been together since. They married on Valentine's Day 25 years ago and have an uncanny knack for completing each other's sentences.

Jesse Garza started working at one of San Antonio's busiest print shops straight out of high school. "I learned proper screen printing from them," he said of the job. Three years and a few other gigs later, he'd gained enough experience to break out on his own and took a leap of faith with Dawn at his side.

One of their earliest jobs together was a sizable T-shirt order for the landmark Mexican restaurant Mi Tierra.

"They had faith in us, and we printed manually for them for a few months," Garza said. "That was a major boost that allowed us to buy an automatic press right away. After that, everything just blew up."

The Garzas expanded quickly, hiring employees and eventually moving into an 8,000-square-foot warehouse filled with expensive equipment. They chased down big contracts from high schools and once printed 10,000 T-shirts for the San Antonio Spurs. But somewhere along the way, they realized that being "big" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"We were like, this isn't even us," Dawn Garza recalled.

"We really were trying to be a bigger company, and we were getting there," Jesse Garza continued. "But it ultimately was not me to be that aggressive with trying to be successful. Everybody wants money. ... But I want to be happy. I want enough money. I don't want to have this giant business — and be responsible for so many people — just to have a lot of money."

Those realizations inspired the couple to scale back to the smaller operation they now run with help from Dawn's nephew PJ and two of their three sons. Situated on a rustic plot in Selma, their amusingly dubbed Cat Palace is named in honor of the felines that came with the wooded property.

"We knew that if we didn't catch them and get them fixed that it was never going to end," Dawn Garza said. "Jesse went to some feral cat classes, and they gave him discounts to get them fixed."

"We've fixed so many cats," added Jesse Garza, an animal lover who arguably became a "cat person" by circumstance.

In addition to assisting with pest control, the resident felines serve as spirit animals for the print shop and on-site skate park, appearing in various interpretations on artist-designed T-shirts, posters, stickers and skateboard decks.

click to enlarge From left: Logan, one of five resident felines, lounges in the Cat Palace office; a flocked Primus tour poster printed by the Garzas. - BRYAN RINDFUSS
Bryan Rindfuss
From left: Logan, one of five resident felines, lounges in the Cat Palace office; a flocked Primus tour poster printed by the Garzas.

Carving a niche

"I'm not a sales guy," Jesse Garza confessed. "And neither is my wife. But the way we survive now is from all those years of word-of-mouth."

When asked about common threads between Cat Palace clients, Dawn explained, "It's all about art now."

"We've been working with people we would want to work with," Jesse Garza followed. "I'm working with artists who I actually admire."

While there are locals on that list — including Robert Tatum, Gilbert Martinez and Ray "Tattooedboy" Scarborough — the Cat Palace customer base stretches far and wide.

One of the factors that widened the net is Jesse Garza's mastery with restoring vintage skateboard decks. As Thrasher magazine reported in 2017, it all started with a 1980s-era Mark Gonzales deck.

"A friend of mine asked if I could fix his board up, and I did it just because I wanted to see how good I could do it," he told the Current. "And it was so good. ... I grew up in that time. ... And it even blew me away — this looked just like the original. [But] it's a lot of work."

A painstaking endeavor, these restorations entail upward of 20 hours of scouring sources for the original artwork featured on the often-rare decks — plus many more reconstructing the artwork in Photoshop. Then there's the screening of the design onto the curved board — a tricky, near-obsolete process that's been widely replaced with cheap digital transfers that fade over time.

A testament to Jesse Garza's meticulous work, some collectors have tried to resell his restorations online as mint-condition originals. As a deterrent, he's started stamping them and leaving tell-tale signs of repair on the tops of the decks.

In tandem with the restoration projects, he's also collaborated with local and national artists on original Cat Palace skateboard decks he screen prints and sells online in limited editions of 50.

Proudly displayed on the walls of his brightly colored office, these aptly cat-centric collabs include contributions from Blink-182 singer Mark Hoppus (a Tony Hawk remix starring an octopus skull), Texas tattoo artist Sean Rakos (a feline spin on the Powell-Peralta logo), Maine-based outfit Weirdwood (an homage to Gargamel's menacing cat Azrael of The Smurfs fame) and illustrator Todd Bratrud (a Ganesh-inspired tabby holding a pot leaf and a screen-printing squeegee). Marketed and dropped via Instagram, all sold out quickly — some in as little as eight minutes.

Getting flocked

While more than a few folks saw pandemic downtime as an invitation to play with sourdough starters, Jesse Garza took a decidedly different route into the realm of flocking — that fuzzy fiber that enhances vintage wallpapers and black-light posters. Since it's a super-niche endeavor in this neck of the woods, his flocking prowess has only amped up Cat Palace's cachet.

"The fact that I make these specialized fuzzy posters is really what saved us," Jesse Garza said. "It's kind of been what's made us successful, because it's such a unique style of poster. And there's so many new artists out there who are rediscovering that — just falling in love with it."

Although this style of poster can be produced overseas, the minimum orders are high, the lead time long and the quality greatly variable. By offering runs as low as 50 and delivering top-quality results, Cat Palace has become a nationwide go-to for artists looking to experiment with the tactile, retro style — which can also be applied to stickers.

In the Cat Palace's dedicated poster room, Jesse and Dawn Garza carefully unstacked some of the flocked designs they've printed — which run the gamut from local runs to limited-edition tour posters for the likes of Foo Fighters and Primus.

What makes the process so tricky?

"That's a bit of a secret," Jesse Garza said. "But I can tell you that it's very involved, and it's very messy."

Getting bootlegged

Beyond T-shirts, Cat Palace's super-specialized, meticulously executed offerings — the skateboard restorations, the artist-designed decks, the flocked posters and stickers — have helped place it on the radar of big names with the means to take creative risks.

One shining example is artist, producer and Jackass collaborator Sean Cliver's skateboard venture StrangeLove. The company tapped Cat Palace for multiple projects, including a furry panda bear T-shirt that Dawn Garza painstakingly embroidered and a flocked sticker pack that accompanied one of Cliver's sought-after sneaker collabs with Nike. Although StrangeLove gifted pairs to the Garzas, Jesse went to the trouble to purchase the bootleg — which came complete with a knockoff version of the Cat Palace sticker pack.

The bizarre irony of this is far from lost on the Garzas.

"It was interesting to see how they copied our stickers — they were horrible, paper stickers," Jesse said with a laugh.

In stark contrast to the hype that surrounds some of their output, Jesse and Dawn both come across as humble, grateful and ultimately satisfied with their unique role in such a diverse assortment of creative projects.

"Being involved in the art part is fun," Dawn said.

"Yeah, and that's kind of always been my place," Jesse echoed.

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