The Surprise That Wasn’t But The Awesome That Was

The second half of this article contains a DIY guide to low-fi shirt printing, but first, I’ll set the scene…

I love a good birthday party. This summer we had a couple of great ones over here at Studiomates, and the first I’ll share is for our beloved S’mate Jason Santa Maria. In my book, the #1 requirement for successful event planning is gathering a group of friends around a common mission, and if you’re lucky enough to have friends as fun-loving as ours, you’ve got it made. Add an authentic Brooklyn venue, pizza, beer and cake, and you’ve got a party worthy of not only our bestest bud Jason but also an 80’s movie montage.

Fair warning, for this type of party you might also want a Megan. Megan is Jason’s lovely girlfriend, and she did all the heavy lifting: booking the restaurant, ordering the food, requesting the cake have blue and yellow sprinkles. My job was really only 1.) getting people there for the surprise and 2.) decor.

Jessi, Jason and Rob

I flubbed big time on the first one, so I may have gone a tad overboard on the second. Here’s how that went down.

Megan shares the idea to plan a surprise party for Jason in the famed “Back Room” of Sam’s, Jason’s favorite old school pizza joint, on Friday, the day after Jason’s actual birthday. Brilliant! She asks me to spread the word to the extended Studiomates family without triggering Jason’s Spidey sense. Sure thing! I’m convinced Jason won’t buy any scenario that involves every single one of us forgetting his birthday; it’s written right there on the Studiomates calendar! I also don’t think he’ll buy us saying we aren’t in the mood or able to find time for a party; Studiomates are born to party. So I decide to go the other way: tell him we are having a Beer Friday and that we want to mix in some birthday fun. We know Jason will have to decline because Megan has already made “plans” with him that he can’t get out of. So on Wednesday I send an email, “Who’s ready for Beer Friday? A little birdie tells me we’ve got a birthday in the house, so let’s make this one special.” I wait for Jason to admit he can’t attend, and we anticipate giving him hell when he does. But the day ends, Jason leaves the office, and not a peep, which is pretty un-Jason like. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Jason is heart broken by the possibility of having to tell us he can’t make it to Beer Friday. He’s making himself miserable. Megan finally decides she has to put Jason out of his misery by telling him we’re all in on it together. So SURPRISE PARTY PRO TIP: when creating a fake party to keep the Surprisee from realizing there’s another party being planned for him, don’t make the decoy party sound as awesome as a Beer Friday with Studiomates.

But Jason deserves the best, most fun party ever. He’s an amazing guy who’s talented enough to get away with kicking puppies. Yet he doesn’t; he picks them up and cuddles with them. He picks up your spirits if your down. He’s always up for a good time. He’s a major reason why I look forward to work each day. Now, with the element of SURPRISE! off the table, I decide we have to find another way to make sure Jason knows how much we all love him. And in my world, this takes the form of party decorations.

Jason as a Balloon
I mean what grown man doesn’t feel loved when he sees his face on a balloon?

Of course, true to my nature, I waitied until the day of the party to get started. Thusly, I now present:

The On-A-Dime And On-The-Fly Guide to Customized Party Decor

Cut a hole in a box. Just kidding.

STEP #1 Find a face to hang your hat on.
Use the morning of the party to scour Flickr or Facebook to find a photo of your honoree. (If he, like Jason, is a prominent Internet personality, your job just became a whole lot easier.) Try to find a photo that captures the essence of your subject. If he has distinguishing characteristics, tattoos or anything that would otherwise give him away in a police lineup, try to include that. Jason is known for his raised eyebrow, so I select a photo that exemplifies this quality. As long as your online, waste some time favoriting a few things and commenting on some photos.

Jason and the Breakfast
The selected photo of Jason giving his “strong brow.” Jason and The Breakfast by Jeremy Keith.

STEP #2 Massage the face into something stencil-able.
Attempt a little Photoshopery. Convert the selected pic to greyscale and then bump up the contrast until everything is either black or white with no in-betweensies. This will inevitably leave you with some unclear (or as I call them “bloppy”) areas, so some finesse and drawing skill is required. Erase and paint until you’ve cleaned that sucker up and have your portrait ready to go. Perfection is not the goal; getting-it-done is.

Phases of Jason
The phases of Jason. He waxes and wanes much like the moon.

STEP #3 Get the face-art onto something cut-able that can take repeated paintings.
I suggest printing onto a transparency, the kind that your high school science teacher used to use in conjunction with an overhead projector. (What the hell transparencies are used for today and why Staples still sells them is beyond me; maybe solely for this purpose). A manilla folder can also work.

Jason as a transparency
That Jason is so transparent.

STEP #4 Cut for what seems like forever.
Use an exacto blade to remove everything on the stencil that’s black, leaving only the clear. If you’ve got a clear area completely surrounded by black, you’re going to have to “bridge it.” Your hand will start to hurt. At one point you’ll have to take a client call while you frantically cut. You will narrowly avoid losing a finger tip. When all’s said and done you’ll have blisters. Remember you love your friend!

Jason Cut Out
All cut out and ready to go!

STEP #5 Gather printables.
Find the things you want to have the image painted onto. Paper is good. So are wearables from thrift stores: t-shirts, sweats, pillow cases, Trapper Keepers, anything with a light-colored, blank-ish area on it will work. If you can’t find enough blank t-shirts, turn some inside out and cut the tags off. All this stuff should be pre washed. Luckily I keep a stash of it lying in wait because I had NO TIME to get to Goodwill on this day.

Ahhh! Only three hours to go!

STEP #6 Keep it cool and remember the balloons.
Take a client meeting and try to pretend like you’re not frantic. Actually, it’s a super cool meeting about a super cool project, so it’s fairly easy. Allow this rare moment of calm to provide presence of mind, reminding you to call the pharmacy down the block and place a balloon order. At 99 cents a pop (ha!), balloons add big bang for your buck. Plus they’ll be super fun to carry around and tie all over Brooklyn later that night. Just don’t release them into the atmosphere because we need sea turtles.

STEP #7 Spray paint!
Gather everything on this list and rush to a place you can spray paint:
- your stencil
- masking tape and scrap paper (tape the paper around your stencil to keep paint from hitting outside it)
- your printables
- a can or two of dark spray paint
- a piece of board to insert into your shirts to keep them nice and flat
- a drop cloth so that you don’t cover your building’s stairwell in paint
- gloves and a mask (um, yeah, I forgot these!)
Position the stencil onto whatever you’re painting and GO for it! Remember to create a brightly-colored shirt for yourself.

Stenciling on Shirts

Stenciled Merch

STEP #8 Pull it all together.
Get at least one good stencil painted on clean white paper. Once it dries (dry is VERY important!) scan this. Add some colored backgrounds to your computerized stencil and use it, along with your honoree’s nickname (in this case, Stan, a nickname no one seems to be able to explain yet all embrace) and maybe a few hearts, for the basis of stickers and garlands. Tip: limit yourself to one classic typeface, like Cooper Black, and three to four colors to serve as the palette for the party. This will help tie everything together. (Wowza. Did I just brand a birthday? Dork!)

It’s all about the love.

STEP #9 Pack it up.
Print out the flair in various sizes onto card stock and sticker paper. Shove everything into a bag. Grab tape, scissors, string, clothes pins, hole punch, you know, all the essentials. Don’t forget all your stenciled stuff. NOW RUN! And change into your stenciled shirt as you run.

Is it flair or flare?
Don’t miss an opportunity to express yourself with flair.

STEP #10 Decorate like it’s a team sport.
Have Rob pick up the color-coordinated balloons and then cram into the back of a vehicle with them as if it’s a clown car. Arrive at the venue a miraculous 20 minutes ahead of the honoree and get everyone to help decorate!! Tie balloons, stick stickers, hang garlands and generally plaster your honoree’s face and name everywhere. Stop sweating and keep a smile on your face. Everything’s in place, and it’s time to party!

Jason Beer
Beers not only take the edge off; they encourage your team to decorate faster!

In the end, I don’t think we lost a thing by not having the party be a surprise. Jason had a big ole’ grin. Everyone donned stickers and t-shirts like a great sport. We dined like kings on pizza and beer (those on Scotchkins had steak and wine). Smiles were abundant. Candle apps were downloaded. Cake was cut and passed. Balloons bounced down Brooklyn’s Court Street. Gay marriage was legalized in New York state and over in Manhattan, the Empire State Building turned rainbow. Rounds of drinks were bought for us when we ran into Lucien. Purple roses were bestowed upon us when we came across Oliver Jeffers. Lots of cheersing and silliness. Love. Love. Love.

When it comes to party decor, personalization is key. When it comes to parties, friends are really what’s it’s about. Hopefully Jason knows how much his friendship means. I can’t imagine Brooklyn without that guy!

Friends who took the photos featured in this post include Skylar Challand, Erin Sparling and Creighton Merhson.

Me and Jason


  1. Jason Santa Maria

    Best. Birthday. Ever.

    Thanks to Megan, you, and all my wonderful Studiomates!

  2. Mi

    In case no one told u, you’re awesommme

  3. Jason O'Brien

    Nicely done. And a perfect example of the official Lazy Method (I, too, often wait until the last minute to do stuff… it mostly works out great!).

  4. melissa

    Wow, Jason’s friends must REALLY love him! Very nice!

  5. Jessi Arrington

    Oh, Melissa, I’m so glad that is evident. We really REALLY do. Jason is da best.

  6. Xu Lu

    Haha I have to say the idea is awesome!!

  7. michele

    oh brilliant post! it must have taken you ages to put it all together… and keep it light… and hilarious! Loved it x

  8. Aster

    Hahahahaha. I will remember awesome secret birthday party tip and not make the fake party sound too good. Or maybe plan the fake one a day after actual party occurrence for maximum surprise.

  9. Arunan

    Brilliant post!

    How was the first image taken? ...curious!

  10. Dusty

    Can you wash a tshirt that has been spray painted?

  11. Jessi Arrington

    Can you wash a shirt that has been spray painted? The answer is YES! Don’t wash it with anything too precious the first time because it fades a little, but that just makes it softer and snugglier!

  12. jane

    my friend just directed me over to your lovely place on the internet, and I must say, she was right in sending me here!!! I love everything I’ve seen so far! you’re fun.


  13. oscar falcón lara

    Wow, amazing. and thanks for the stencil instructions.

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