Arts December 16, 2019

Wearable Art with a Message

Billy McMaster creates custom jackets with his Modern Armor


As a child, Billy McMaster dreamed of being a fireman; he would hook up a garden hose to the back of his Big Wheel and pedal around the neighborhood, letting his neighbors know that he was standing by to douse any
errant flames. He eventually realized that dream, which led him indirectly to his current role as the purveyor of Modern Armor in which he repurposes leather jackets into wearable art with a political statement.

His signature design elements include hand painting and lots of hand-applied studs and spikes. His work has a punk vibe, perfect for an aspiring rock star or fashionista. He created his first jacket design, which he calls the Art Bomb, while recovering from back surgery that ended his firefighting career.

“The Art Bomb took me about 60 hours,” McMaster said. “I had a great experience doing it, and got great feedback, so I did another. It wasn’t so much the selling of the jackets but the creativity that was therapeutic.”

Subsequently, he has made jackets for customers in Brazil, Australia, and the U.S.

McMaster said the idea for each jacket emerges organically. “I sit down and start to create without having the whole thing laid out,” he said. “And the pieces just fit together as I go. The creative process is what I enjoy.”

McMaster sees himself as a rebel against injustice, and his art becomes the medium for the message. He’s a passionate advocate of Native American rights and participated in the Standing Rock protest. The “Agent Orange” jacket is dedicated to his uncle who is dying of the chemical he was exposed to while fighting in Vietnam.

McMaster studied graphic art and digital photography at Brooks College in Long Beach, Calif., which is well known for its fashion design program. In his 20s, he started a clothing company called Action Sportswear with several friends. He oversaw graphic design and the wholesale manufacturing process. “We were running around Newport Beach, immersed in the beach surfing culture. It was a crazy scene!”

But in between partying and sleeping on the beach, McMaster worked in the garment district in downtown L.A. It was that latent discipline that allowed him to access the rarified world of wildland firefighting.

McMaster became a member of an elite Hotshots fire crew based in Darby, Mont. Hotshots wildland firefighters are the guys who battle the fire in the “hottest” spots, on the ground, often in remote and steep terrain where deploying equipment isn’t possible. It’s extremely demanding physically and very dangerous.

Hotshots are tough cookies. McMaster was injured in 2004, and a burning tree in Elk City, Idaho, fell on his back in 2005, but he continued to fight fires until he couldn’t anymore. He moved off the Hotshots crew into dispatch at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, which serves as the nation’s logistical hub in fighting wildland fires. But the unrelenting pain from his injured vertebrae brought his firefighting career to an abrupt end. In 2011, McMaster had the first of his back surgeries. It was unsuccessful. He had another.

He spent a year in New York, working out of a studio in Chelsea, shooting model portfolios and what is known in the fashion industry as “look books,” trying to gain a foothold. He’s since moved back to Boise where he’s funneled his anger, pain, and energy into creativity. “The whole troubled youth thing in L.A.? All that energy that went into partying, I learned to focus in the jackets,” McMaster said. “Once I get going, I can’t stop. I get into a meditative flow, and time and everything around me disappears. It’s just me and the jacket. And that’s why I like it.”

This article appears in the Winter 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.