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Getting All Shirty

Dan Button, Design Director at FRUKT London, dissects the hallowed "Band T-shirt" and what it has become today.

I went to a MEGA mall recently. It was horrendous. Everyone on a mission, everyone fighting for their lives, arms swinging, legs stomping, battle cries ringing out. A heaving throng of misery pilled into a huge sweltering green house. It wasn’t my choice, I was on boyfriend duty. I didn’t get too grumpy, I just carried bags without protest, and if I kept my head down I would be rewarded with a pasty and the possibility of getting out of there alive.

And it’s in moments like these where my mind begins to wander to distance myself from the horrors that surround me. Upon passing two popular female retail outlets I couldn’t help but notice that in both displays, there were multiple replica Metallica t-shirts. Now this is nothing new but in my mind I still find this relatively odd. A Thrash Metal band, their logo blazoned across the chest of a teen that probably thinks Master of Puppets is a Pixar film. But then there’s another side of me, the designer who appreciates a great logo. A logo that someone is proud to display upon their person. And that’s where I contradict myself.

For as long as I can remember, music has been a necessity in my life. Wearing out my Bad Michael Jackson cassette, swapping rave mixtapes with friends, walking to school and screaming along to Kurt Cobain and Axel Rose on my Walkman, right through to the present day where my Spotify account is never not playing. Therefore at school, when I was lucky enough to never wear a uniform, I would proudly wear my Rage Against The Machine and Pop Will Eat Itself t-shirts. Those shirts, along with my biro attacked patched strewn bag, served as symbols to declare that I was different and informing everyone at school who my favourite bands were (plus they were cheaper and less painful than tattoos). And this is where my issue is with people wearing band t-shirts today stems from. The pride, passion and kinship that these t-shirts stood for now seems to be lost as a result of mass high street production. I guess this is all part of the disposable culture we now live in; the "let’s dress up and pretend we’re rock stars" look. And that’s what hurts the most.

But all of these band logos are "sick!". Who wouldn’t want The Ramones baseball bat armed eagle splashed across their chest? Metallica’s lightning bolt logo (that Kanye West has ripped off)? Double whammy. Or what about Public Enemy’s B-Boy in a gun target, the Misfits’ skull faceIron Maiden’s walking corpse Eddie, carrying a ripped Union Jack and blooded knife? They’re all amazing! If I was a young teenager now I’d definitely be wanting to wear one of those bad boys. I’d like to think though that I’d find out who they were and dig out their back catalogue. 

In my day though, aside from the design itself, you’d read up on the history of each band and design, their meanings and who did them. Whether created by friends and band members or scrawled on a scrap of paper and done for £10 by that art student down the road, it’s all part of the folklore. For instance, the guy who created the often remixed four bar Black Flag logo was actually just their bass player at the time, Raymond Pettibon. A personal favourite who coincidentally did the illustration for another infamous band t-shirt, the front cover of Sonic Youth’s Goo. Arturo Vega, the guy who not only designed The Ramones logo, who was actually their friend, but also provided the band with their rehearsal space. No Vega, no Ramones. These are the stories I absorbed as a teen because I sought out the music. Do you need to know this though? Really? If you saw a beautiful sunset would you find out how it came to be?

The importance of knowing your music however and what it stands for in today’s world should be as important to people as it was in ‘my day’ because like good design, if something has no heart and soul people will see right through it and rip it to pieces. Take the example of Strong Scene Productions, a group of genuine Metal fans who decided to have some fun with the uneducated fashionistas. They duped the world into thinking H&M had released a Spring Collection full of Neo Nazi metal t-shirts. Essentially Strong Scene Productions took exception to the influx of soulless ‘metal’ band logo t-shirts and created actual bands based on those logos before spreading their image and music across the internet, causing panic and finger pointing. And it’s examples like this where the music fan in me wished teenie boppers would make educated decisions/purchases, and from a wider standpoint, reinforcing the need for brands to be self aware and educated on important sub cultures – instead of thinking they can just cherry pick. I’d love to know what the designers at H&M thought of all of this, and whether they even questioned the brief that came in? Maybe it’s up to us then to educate, to tell these stories so people don’t miss or dismiss the detail, give them the reasons why these stories are important.

The answer probably lies with a ‘Music Genres for Dummies’ pamphlet in every teenage clothing outlet that accompanies every band t-shirt purchase. "That’ll be £10 please. Simply read this pamphlet, complete the test at the back, send your answers to the address provided and should you pass, your t-shirt will be sent to you in the post." That’ll make them think twice! 

And you know what, throughout this article I have been wearing a brand new and recently acquired Nirvana t-shirt, but in my defence I got it from the Sub Pop store so there’s surely some credit and dignity to be had in that? For going that extra (air) mile. Well there would be if they hadn’t screen printed it slightly off centre, so to be fair to the massive retail outlets, at least they get that right.