T-Shirts are great. They give us a chance to feel like we are expressing ourselves despite wearing the exact same garment every day.
The sudden rise of t-shirts that reference popular or “nerdy” pop culture minutia has given sub-communities a greater sense of belonging and identity. Before the early 2000s, finding a Batman t-shirt usually meant going to Six Flags or digging through catalogs. Now Wal-Mart sells them, along with original NES controller shirts, because the market for such things has become so big and reliable.
Artists making these type of shirts also get a chance to get their work seen. They can create a design as an homage to something that they love and give fans a new reason to be proud.
All of these aspects of the nerdy t-shirt market are great, but seriously, some of this shit has to stop.
The problem lies not in any one shirt design, but a host of copies or formulaic “insert combined reference here” cash-ins that start to feel lazy once juxtaposed with other nearly-identical work. The market has become saturated, and despite a slew of creative artists putting fresh spins on existing ideas, vendors seem to be picking the most lukewarm and uninspired designs to pad out their sales.
Here are some of the worst examples…
Proving You Attended a Math or Science Class During High School
GET IT?! DO YA GET IT?!
You might not because I am so sophisticated that I paid attention that one time during ninth grade. I now drag around lame jokes and references in an effort to prove that I have intelligence, even though I never bothered reading my textbooks during college.
I also write for The Big Bang Theory. Money, please!
I confess I have an inherent bias against these, mostly because I cannot manage to enjoy Dr. Who in any fashion. Not enjoying something, however, does not give me license to inherently deride a fandom who does. Them wearing tee shirt designs that were slapped together in two seconds is what gives me that license.
It seems that inserting a Tardis into damn near anything is enough to warrant people giving it consideration. If you drew a tardis crashing into the World Trade Center, people would probably buy a shirt of it. Actually, one of those people might regrettably be me.
Despicable Me was a movie written for 9-11 year-olds. Granted, it was a well-written movie and definitely had enough heart and clever content to appeal to people of all ages. The story was also heart-warming and did a decent job of giving a character depth and a dynamic arc.
There were also little yellow dudes that spoke gibberish in high-pitched voices. Yes, I laughed at their antics, but they were far from the highlight of the movie. Also, I’m pretty sure that they were meant to make kids who were too young to pay attention to the script still laugh. That may just make their humor universal, but that’s only in a universe where people want to see the same thing over and over again.
Oh god, they’re imploding now! Hello Kitty has been around for decades, and it may have hit its height of popularity in the 90s from what I can tell. The kawai kitty icon has timeless appeal, though, so its no wonder she keeps popping up even in this day and age.
She’s also incredibly easy to draw. Some circles, ovals, and lines and you’re done. She might actually be one of the most simplistic character designs ever. Could this be why t-shirt vendors are spewing out as many iterations of this as possible? Absolutely impossible!
Totoro Bus Stop
These aren’t particularly egregious because they usually include fun details and a bit more creativity. In fact, I liked the first thirty or so examples I saw.
The problem now is that there are a million of these coming out all of the time, and very few offer something truly unique. It’s always going to be the exact same composition with the exact same poses, and two fairly arbitrary character choices – save that one’s big and one’s small.
Some designers have even skimped on the flourishing accoutrements and instead just went for as simple and basic of a design as possible. I give the vast majority of these a B- for effort.
Of course not all of these design choices inevitably end up in schlocky failure. With the right approach and skill, any style can be used as a fun way to showcase your ability to use different artistic rules. Even an obvious mashup can appear refreshing and unexpected when depicted in the proper light.
So don’t let me discourage you from trying to buy a shirt you felt like you had to have because it had the most clever reference or combination you had seen. I promise not to judge you …out loud.
Got a t-shirt trope that really grinds your gears? Let me know about it in the comments!
Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English Alumni and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and sometimes buys t-shirts he doesn’t need at three in the morning.