Jason Diamond on the overlooked vintage band T-shirts of his youth
A few years back I found myself at the great Brooklyn vintage shop Wooden Sleepers when it was still an actual storefront in Red Hook. I don’t recall everything I purchased, but I definitely bought my yellow W.S. dad hat that I love, and, I think, an old Columbia sweatshirt that I feel like a dick wearing since I didn’t actually go there. It just had the feel of gutter Ivy Style and that’s really the look I’m always going for. I’m certain I went over my personal spending budget on maybe four items, but when I got to the counter there was one thing that caught my eye and I thought, well, another $25 bucks won’t kill me. I picked up a copy of the book called Life. Love. Shirts, familiar both with the reference to the lyric by the hardcore band Unbroken as well as the Revelation Records logo on the back, and I thought, “There has never been a more necessary book about t-shirts.”
Life. Love. Shirts. is a project by a German schoolteacher named Orhun Öner that centers around an Instagram account with just over 21,000 followers that is simply Öner documenting his impressive number of hardcore shirts, mostly from ‘90s hardcore bands. That’s it. In the grand scheme of Internet fandom, I’d say that number of followers is nothing to sneeze at, but it isn’t, say, the same number as the Grateful Dead bootleg account From the Lot, which has over 78 thousand followers as of this writing. And that’s simply because the hardcore scene, especially the scene that Life. Love. Shirts. largely documents, has always been relatively small. 21 thousand followers for an Instagram account that posts vintage shirts from bands like Trial and Four Walls Falling seems more than generous. What I like about Life. Love. Shirts., besides hitting the “Like” button on everything he posts, is that it sums up the odd place hardcore shirts, especially hardcore shirts from the late-1980s into the start of the new millennium — from Youth Crew to metalcore bands playing Ozzfest — occupies in the wider conversation of vintage band shirts. The audience for hardcore shirts is almost entirely online. That is, you could go to a vintage shop or flea market and you will likely see vintage band shirts from Iron Maiden or Rick Springfield’s 1988 tour shirt fetching three figures. And the wild part is that people will pay that whether they like those artists or not. On the other hand, if you pop in a Despair or Coalesce shirt into that mix, more likely or not, they’ll sit. I don’t have scientific proof to back this up, but it’s something I’ve paid attention to over the years. One of my weird hobbies is watching old hardcore shirts collect dust on vintage racks.
“I am not sure if the hardcore vintage t-shirt will ever cross over into the mainstream,” Chris Black says. I bothered the writer and co-host of “How Long Gone” because I’d seen a few nods to ‘90s hardcore in his Instagram before and always like his takes on this sort of stuff. The hardcore scene, especially from the ‘80s well into the aughts, was incredibly bro-ish and insular. Basically, every single album you’d buy had some discussion of “brotherhood” or “the scene,” and generally the whole thing had a feeling of you werre either part of it or you weren’t. So while some people might not know an Iron Maiden song or weren’t even alive for the 1988 Rick Springfield tour, at least they’re familiar with the names of the artists or the iconography. That’s not the case when it comes to bands like Undertow or Burn. Black thinks vintage dealers bother stocking the shirts in the first place is a wink and nod from the sellers themselves.
“I think a lot of it has to do with vintage sellers being former hardcore kids themselves. Their customers being guys like me, in their late 30's, with discretionary income, who are willing to pay for the nostalgia of a poorly designed, worn-out Snapcase long sleeve t-shirt because it takes them back to a basement in 1998 when life was easier.”
And while vintage hardcore shirts might not have the same appeal to buyers, the influence the scene has had on style, especially streetwear, is impossible to overlook. Just look to Noah doing a Youth of Today collection or read This Is Not a T-Shirt: A Brand, a Culture, a Community--a Life in Streetwear by Bobby Hundreds.
“The iconography of hardcore shirts has sort of morphed into the neo-retro graphic dump of 90s culture alongside rave and skate imagery, and that makes a lot of sense to me,” says Anthony Sylvester. Sylvester’s personal style draws inspiration from all sorts of different places, from Ivy League campuses in the ‘60s to characters in Graham Greene novels or the writer Paul Bowles. He makes everything he shows off on Instagram work, a rarity in the selfie age when it comes to men’s fashion. But what I’m always most interested in is when he posts a shot of himself wearing a hardcore band longsleeve. It’s all his style, but I’d wager that some of the more hardline traditional style folks who feign some aversion to T-shirts might be a tad confused.
“It’s something I’m still really protective of. I have a hard time with people claiming something that they haven’t put the time and effort into, I guess it’s a hangover from growing up with that being the most important aspect to the culture. You were either into it or you weren’t, there was no middle ground. I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying to rep something I didn’t know inside out, and the same is true to me still. I can see how that comes across as gatekeeper-ish, but I have little time for irony and artifice when it comes to the things are (still) important to me,” he says.
Hardcore shirts from the ‘80s and ‘90s also represent a moment in time where the merch game started becoming an important part of how bands operated. They represent a line between punk and hardcore being this small, mostly DIY operation, the whole “Get in the Van” and play to 500 people one night and five the next and make 25 bucks at each show thing you hear all the time from bands from the early-1980s. In 1990s Chicago, for instance, a thing people I know did was make a trip to the Victory Records-owned Bulldog Records store with the specific intent of buying shirts. Labels like Victory and Revelation made shirts just as big of a catalog item as the records the bands put out, a far cry from the anti-merch stance of Fugazi and other bands of the time. The proliferation of hardcore shirts thanks to cheaper and easier printing methods, combined with a smaller fanbase — not to mention a fanbase that often grows out of “the scene” by a certain age — means that there’s probably a lot of old hardcore shirts floating around out there not being appreciated by people scanning the vintage racks irl.
Online, it’s a bit of a different story. Hardcore was suited for the internet age. Message boards and AOL chatrooms for vegan straight edge kids were a big deal in the Clinton era. And the merch game followed. Bands and labels could sell their stuff without having to go on tour or deal with the hassle of consignment with a record store. The first thing I ever purchased online was a shirt from the Minneapolis band Harvest that I wish I still had. I’ve found myself looking for it, but I’ve never pulled the trigger.
And that, more than anything, is why hardcore shirts occupy a certain level of importance on the Internet that they might not in the real world. The appeal of vintage shopping, for many of us, is the thrill of the find. As Jonah Weiner mentioned in a recent installment of Blackbird Spyplane, “several of my best-loved pieces are ones I copped in living, breathing spaces whose four dimensions I can readily summon to memory.” For something like a hardcore shirt, you have to know what you’re looking for and where you can find it. Black notes he’d love to own an original Gorilla Biscuits “Start Today” shirt. “Doesn't get better. That was the era right before mine, so I romanticize it ever more than my own.” And while Sylvester also says he’s a fan of the Youth Crew era shirts Gorilla Biscuits were a part of, he’s got a few others on his radar. “I would still kill for the Swiz calligraphy logo tee with Sammich Records backprint, and the original Supertouch “Get Down” tee in Knicks colours.
Ultimately, that’s the beauty of the hardcore shirt. If you want a specific design, you’re likely going to find it through somebody who posts it somewhere like eBay or if one of the couple of good bootleggers like Justified Arrogance decides to print some up. The demand for these shirts will likely always be online, a place for the people that really want them, the maybe 20 thousand or so that follow Life. Love. Shirts. Maybe a vintage hardcore shirt or two will sneak through into the mainstream, like when Rihanna wore a vintage Nemesis Records "End Racism" shirt in a Harper’s Bazaar spread and sent eBay buyers scouring the net and spending big money on the first one they could find. Or, maybe, like with artists connected to the early punk and hardcore scenes like Gary Panter or Raymond Pettibon —the artists behind the Screamers and Black Flag logos, respectively — some of the artists who drew album art or the logos for bands like Earth Crisis or Racetraitor will grow in stature, capturing the attention of the worlds of art and fashion.
“Admittedly,” Black says “a Dwid [Hellion, singer of the band Integrity] drawing at Gagosian seems farfetched, but let's be honest, every artist is one Supreme collaboration from cashing in.”—Jason Diamond