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The vintage band T-shirt has enjoyed a steady revival over the last few years, only strengthened by the increasingly eco-conscious attitudes of the typical fashion consumer. Out of the countless bands whose old merch graphics are rightly being celebrated in today’s ’90s-centric era, none top the appeal of grunge icons Nirvana. Like anything associated with the Seattle band, their old tour tees have become extremely covetable, with endorsement from trendsetting rap stars such as Travis Scott and Ye driving eye-watering resell prices. From official releases to bootleg classics, here we explore the most important graphic tees from Nirvana’s archive.
The one that started it all: this was Nirvana’s first ever official T-shirt offering, released and sold at shows while the band toured their debut album, Bleach, in 1989. With a simple yet striking front graphic of the circles of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno, the shirt features the infamous “Fudge Packin’ Crack Smokin’ Satan Worshippin’ Motherfuckers” back hit. The Dante graphic was used throughout the band’s short career, and even beyond it, though it hasn’t managed to evade controversy. In 1997, the granddaughter of English heraldry writer Charles Wilfrid Scott-Giles sued against the T-shirt’s distribution, arguing its similarity to her grandfather’s interpretation of Inferno, titled Upper Hell, but a Californian judge threw out the case, suggesting it would be better suited for a British court.
Although the “Stripper” graphic isn’t connected to any Nirvana release as such, it’s still managed to weave a legacy in the band’s visual roster. Originally released by Sub Pop records around the time of Bleach, the shirt features an illustration of a gloved, topless model against the group’s classic Onyx logo, with the “Fudge Packin’...” text printed on the back. The T-shirt was produced in two colors: a white on black and a full color print on white, which was recently bootlegged by cult punk subculture IG source Justified Arrogance in 2020.
Two Virgins (1990)
Another Bleach-era tour shirt that channeled both the band’s influences as well as their sense of humor. The “Two Virgins” graphic lifts the cover photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1968 album, Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, but with the faces of Sub Pop co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman superimposed onto the aforementioned duo. An authentic vintage edition will usually set you back around $1,000, though they can be picked up for under $400, likely due to buyers holding back on account of the amount of fakes circulating on auction sites. The “Two Virgins” shirt is also notable as the first Nirvana tee to be turned into an NFT, a token wherein buyers can own Krist Novoselic’s own personal shirt in both digital and physical forms.
T-shirts made to promote a band’s single are not common, even among the plethora of music merch produced in the 1980s and ’90s. But this would become a tradition for Nirvana in their major label period, starting with 1990’s standalone single “Sliver.” Two versions of the “Sliver” tee were produced: one in 1990 and another with a slightly altered graphic in 1992. The latter is the more recurrent design, popping up in thrift stores and finding its way onto modern reprints, but both shirts feature the anatomical model image screen in blue and pink, with “SLIVER” spelled out for the back hit. Kurt Cobain was known to be obsessed with human anatomy, even going so far as wearing his own obscure vintage medical tees with similar graphics.
Authentic Bleach album cover shirts are seldom seen on the market, and if they are, they tend to feature the Sub Pop logo beneath the album’s track listing on the reverse. After signing with Geffen Records in 1991, the band went out on a summer tour with Dinosaur Jr. to gear up for the release of their breakthrough album Nevermind, and due to the label switch, the Sub Pop logo was left off. This has boosted the value of these particular editions, especially as official Bleach tees were scarcely available going forward, as the record company appeared to focus on newer releases. A vintage original on an Oneita blank comes with a hefty $7,000 price tag.
Perhaps the most iconic symbol associated with the band, the “Smiley” has appeared on just about anything that can hold a print or stitch. While the graphic is often credited to Cobain, it was actually the band’s art director Robert Fisher who first sketched out the worse-for-wear-looking smiley face as a way of subverting the classic yellow and black used as a symbol for the acid house generation of the late ’80s. The image was first used for Nevermind’s launch party flier in 1991, and it has appeared on official Nirvana T-shirts from 1992 onwards. The graphic is often joined by the “Flower Sniffin’… Corporate Rock Whores” print on the back, itself a tongue-in-cheek “sell out” flip on the “Fudge Packin’...” reverse that was previously used on Nirvana’s tees. Aside from the debate over the Smiley’s creator, the graphic has also attracted recent legal controversy after it was used by Marc Jacobs to brand his “Redux Grunge Collection” in 2018. Jacobs’ version swapped the exed-out eyes of the original for his own initials.
Following the snowballing success of the band's soon-to-be classic sophomore LP in early 1992, a slew of new promotional gear was produced to maximize its appeal. Nirvana hats, pins, and patches were offered to fans for the first time, along with a series of tour shirts sporting Nevermind’s iconic album cover on the front. For the group’s US and European shows, the tee only featured the record’s track listing on the reverse, with these versions being the most commonly thrifted today. However, a much rarer Australian tour variant, which sees the song titles swapped out for tour dates, commands around $1,500 at auction, thrice the value of the standard version.
For Geffen Records, Nevermind’s seismic success meant that the hype around the band was apparently too much to not cash-in on. The year after the record’s release, a compilation of B-sides and rarities was issued to satisfy fans until the next full album. Titled Incesticide, its artwork featured a marionette painting by Cobain and unique DIY lettering by Fisher. The design was applied to the supplementary promo shirt, printed large on khaki blanks to match the sickly green background of the cover. The Incesticide tee is another one that goes for anything from $500 upwards, partly thanks to Travis Scott, who has repeatedly performed in the top after adding it to his vast collection.
In April ’93, Nirvana organized a fundraiser show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco to raise awareness about human-rights violations against women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As part of the benefit, which featured live performances from Nirvana, L7, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and the Breeders, the band created a special T-shirt that featured a reproduction of Cubist painter Pablo Picasso’s 1951 work Massacre in Korea. In 1999, a stash of 136 shirts was discovered and sold online with proceeds from the auction benefiting “the Seattle anti-violence and self-defense organization Home Alive and groups working to end violence against women in the former Yugoslavia.” Today, the T-shirt remains one of the most covetable Nirvana tees in existence.
In Utero (1993)
By 1993, Nirvana were arguably the biggest band in the world, and fans were hotly anticipating their third album, In Utero. When the record dropped in the fall of that year, fans clamored over not just its visceral sound, but also the shocking artwork, which depicted an anatomical image of a winged pregnant woman. This graphic was also used on the accompanying promo shirt, blown up and prefixed with the usual Nirvana logo. Produced with Fruit of the Loom blanks and retagged with licensor Brockum’s labels, the shirt has found a new audience after being seen on the likes of Playboi Carti and Ye, which has significantly raised its value. It will always be held in high regard amongst collectors as the official shirt of Nirvana’s last-ever tour.
Cobain’s fascination with seahorses is prominent across his art, with the singer particularly drawn to the aspect of them being the only species in which the male gives birth. There are many drawings of the creatures in his journals, often captioned with details of their reproduction process, one of which was used as the template for a promo tee sold during the “In Utero” tour in 1993, along with a matching seahorse pin. To the layperson or uninformed fan, the shirt wouldn’t even appear to be associated with the band, save for the “yeah, this was a Nirvana shirt…” graphic printed on the back near the hem, but it was in actual fact the second time the group would incorporate the animal in a T-shirt design. The 1992 “Come As You Are” tee also featured a seahorse graphic.
Heart-Shaped Box (1993)
Along with its trippy Anton Corbijn–directed music video, this tee for In Utero’s lead single, “Heart-Shaped Box,” was by far the most elaborately designed the band had ever put out. It features an all-over heart stencil motif as well as two huge front and back graphics featuring the single’s art in bold contrasting inks. Robert Fisher was again the man behind the famous artwork, juxtaposing photographs Cobain had taken of backlit lilies and a foil-wrapped heart-shaped box (a gift from Courtney Love) with scanned-in heart beads, which were then inverted and colorized red. Fans were given an opportunity to own some of the very beads pictured on the single’s sleeve through an IG giveaway by Fisher in 2020. The tee found mainstream attention in 2015 when pop superstar Justin Bieber donned it for that year’s American Music Awards. Bieber’s grunge credentials were brought into question in an online backlash, but it was revealed by his stylist that the shirt actually belonged to Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo, who had it customized with his brand’s logo on the back.
Blue Figure Crew Shirt (1993)
The bigger the band became, the more money there was for things most independent acts would deem unnecessary, such as outfitting the crew. For the “In Utero” tour, technical crew, roadies, and security were given their own one-off T-shirts, which differed greatly from those sold commercially. The designs typically appeared in what is now referred to as a “mullet” style, where a small chest print is paired with larger design on the back, and are now highly sought after. The Aragon Ballroom show in Chicago, in particular, produced one of the rarest examples: a pocket mullet tee with a unique print of a blue figure on the back. When one came up for sale on eBay a few years ago, the owner claimed it was from Kurt’s personal bodyguard, and it was rumored to have changed hands for nearly $7,000. For the crew members working at gigs in colder temperatures, there were even waffle knit thermal long sleeves embroidered with the In Utero “angel” produced in low quantities by Brockum, which can go for anywhere up to $3,200 on auction sites today.
MTV Unplugged (1994)
Nirvana’s legendary Unplugged show broke new ground for both the band and MTV when it aired in December 1993. Up until then, the acoustic series had not featured any alternative acts, and the performance was so impressive it led many to speculate that it could be a precursor for the group’s new musical direction. An official release followed in 1994, several months after Cobain’s death, complete with the customary promotional T-shirt. The licensing switch back to Giant Merchandising meant new neck labels, but the graphic didn’t divert from that used on the CD cover: a shot of the band onstage with a scrawled border and the record’s title. Nevertheless, it’s remained a key favorite for collectors, and an original, depending on condition, can set you back around $500.
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996)
The second posthumous release following Cobain’s passing in 1994 brought with it a new set of promotional shirts and posters. Though album artwork was created once again by Robert Fisher — which comprised of photos of old doll parts submerged in mud — it was vetoed by label chiefs in favor of a collage of live shots from the group’s heyday. One particular 1991 image by iconic grunge photographer Charles Peterson was used for the tee. Up until recently, the shirt could be acquired for less than $100 (extremely affordable compared to some of its peers) but this inevitably changed once it was spotted on rapper Travis Scott in 2018.
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