Streetwear is an industry in a perpetual state of flux. Trends come and go, tastes evolve and change, and in the last few years the Internet has made what was once a subculture tucked away from the mainstream and only accessible to those “in the know” available to anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection and a thirst for knowledge.
However, one thing that’s never lost its place in streetwear is the graphic tee. It’s been integral to the culture since the very first day “streetwear” became a thing (there’s no true answer to when streetwear started – 10 people would likely tell you 10 different origin stories), and still reigns supreme (no pun intended) today.
Freshjive’s OG designs, inspired by 7-11’s Big Gulp and Shout laundry detergent
A good graphic tee is at once head-turning, engaging and thought-provoking. You may love it the first time you see it, but it may take you a few wears to truly appreciate the thought behind the design, satisfying both the “now” and the “later” in the way that only a great piece of art can. It’s the type of piece that someone who’s not into street culture can look at and think “wow, that’s a cool tee shirt” without understanding the meaning … but someone who does know more can peel back the first layer and dive deeper into the meaning behind the shirt.
X-Large’s “OG Travel” designs, inspired by the Ben Davis gorilla.
The early days of streetwear were built on the back of clever graphic tees, as brands like Freshjive, XLARGE, and Fuct established a loyal following with their clever and unique graphics, riffing on pop culture icons like the Shout label, Ben Davis’s gorilla, and the Jaws poster. The parody/logo flip has always been a part of streetwear, and some brands build a large part of their identity around it.
The original Jaws movie poster next to Fuct’s unique take.
Take for example the Fuct Jaws tee, one of the most iconic pieces of all time from one of the most iconic streetwear brands of all time. The movie-poster graphic is instantly recognizable even if you don’t catch the logo flip right away, but if you look deeper into the head-turning graphic, there’s hidden meaning and statements packed into every little nook and cranny. The shark featured on the original graphic has been bastardized, replaced with a voluptuous woman about to swallow a swimming shark whole. The shark is no longer the predator, it’s now the prey.
There’s a plethora of potential meanings here. You could take the tee to mean that the shark is a representation of a man (who likely thinks he’s the king of the “sea”) about to be devoured by a dangerous, powerful woman. You could use the tee to start a conversation on the classic iconography used in Jaws. No matter how you chose to interprit the design, the tee itself is a statement piece that can start a discussion.
Bape’s iconic ape head logo. Notice streetwear’s fascination with primates?
Make no mistake though: not every graphic tee in streetwear is a logo flip. Many brands also offer a powerful, simple logo that rises to cultural significance due to the meaning behind it and the people who rock it. Supreme’s iconic box logo, inspired by Barbra Krueger’s art, Stussy’s signature scrawl taken from Sean Stussy’s surfboards, and Bape’s ape head have all become bigger than the brands themselves, and are now powerful iconography recognized all around the world. The right tee can make a statement about who you are, and what you stand for, no matter where you come from. If you rock a certain brand’s logo the right way, it’ll talk for you, and you won’t have to say a word.
A classic Stussy tee from the 1980’s
And a good tee isn’t just a good tee because of what it means to streetwear culture. It’s also essential from an outfit standpoint, as a tee can be the focal point of your wardrobe in the warmer months and an essential layering piece in the colder months. No matter if it’s your outer layer or your base layer, you’re always wearing one, and it’s always got to work with whatever else you may have on. Sure, it may be a simple piece … but occasionally simple pieces are the most important. Anyone can wear a tee, but not anyone can make a tee look dope.
So be sure to pick your tees carefully. If you see a graphic you like? Take the time to explore the meaning behind it. It just may open you up to a whole new world of possibilities that you knew nothing about. That’s when a tee is really more than just a tee.
And be sure to stay tuned right here to KicksOneTwo … we may be sharing the stories behind iconic streetwear tees very soon.
What’s your favorite classic streetwear graphic tee or logo? Sound off in the comments below!