Famous Tees of History Series: The True Story of the Smiley Face T-shirt (part 2 of 3)
December 6, 2021
T-shirts are a uniquely American fashion item that spread to the rest of the world, and the famous designs emblazoned on them each have a history of their own. In this series, I’ll be highlighting the most iconic designs in the T-shirt universe, diving into their origin stories, what made them so popular, then taking a look at where they are today and what they inspired.
Part 2: The Smiley Goes Dark
Picking up where I left off in part one, it’s 1972 and the first wave of the Smiley craze was reaching its zenith. In the space of just two years, the Spain brothers in Philadelphia had raked in $1.5 million selling Smiley merchandise, and the symbol had traveled around the world and back.
Meanwhile, Franklin Loufrani had trademarked the Smiley Company™ and was busy giving out stickers and selling T-shirts at festivals around Europe. If you want a quick recap of the timeline in part one, here’s a handy infographic.
The world had achieved peak Smiley– and this is when things took a turn.
In 1973, DC comics pushed what would be a short-lived series called simply Prez by Joe Simon, the legendary creator of Captain America, which imagines the first teenage president of the United States. In issue #2 of the series, the title character Prez Rickard battles Boss Smiley: a corrupt, all-powerful political boss with the head of a smiley-face button.
The comic was stridently political and satirical, speaking to the turbulent nature of the time, and Smiley as a villain reflected the public’s growing disillusionment and a distrust of authority. We’re not buying the old smiley-faced routine, it seemed to say– we can see through you. Instead of representing happiness, it represented shady corporate greed and political power.
Along with Boss Smiley, our hero Prez also battles a legless vampire and his werewolf henchman, a right-wing militia led by the great-great-great-great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, and evil chess players, so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into it.
Although the comic was fairly unsuccessful, lasting only two years, it made an impact in the public consciousness, and especially with other comic book creators, who would reprise some of the characters in future comics over the years– especially Boss Smiley.
He would later appear in issue #54 of Neil Gaiman’s blockbuster series Sandman, which features a bleak retelling of the Prez story and imagines Boss Smiley as an evil, god-like figure.
In a 2015 remake of the original Prez comic book series, which takes place in 2030 with the president as a fourteen-year-old girl along with a whole new set of characters, one of them is brought back from the early ‘70s version: Boss Smiley.
“He’s the CEO of Smiley Enterprises,” said writer Mark Russell. “In the future, under the corporate personhood amendment, corporations are not required to reveal the identities of their corporate officers. So Boss Smiley wears the smiley face mask to conceal his personal identity as the CEO of Smiley Enterprises.”
Psycho Killer Smiley
The beloved and influential rock band Talking Heads made a huge splash with their debut release. The title track and debut hit on their first album was the funky new wave song “Psycho Killer” that would go on to be included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
On the 12” single release in 1977, what was pictured on the album cover? Oh, just someone wearing a T-shirt with a distorted version of the Smiley face. A dark place to see the symbol for happiness hanging out.
Was the song really about an actual psycho killer?
“Psycho Killer” became instantly associated in popular culture with the Son of Sam serial killings, which were happening around that time. Although the band always insisted that the song had no inspiration from those particular events, the single’s release date seemed eerily timed. But was it something more innocent?
Not so much. The lyrics seem to represent the thoughts of a serial killer.
In the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads, Byrne says: “When I started writing this (I got help later), I imagined Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad. Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys. Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.”
So the psycho killer on the cover is wearing a T-shirt ironically. A wolf in sheep’s clothes. The ostensible “good guy” is really a bad guy. Happiness as madness. It’s like the Smiley suddenly became a teenager.
Speaking of debut albums that took the Smiley to dark places, in 1979 legendary punk rockers The Dead Kennedys released their first single, entitled “California Über Alles”, an allusion to a removed part of the German National Anthem that was associated with the not-very-happy movement known as Nazism.
The album cover, designed by Bob Last and Bruce Slesinger, featured a modified image from that time period, but instead of Hitler it was Governor Jerry Brown and instead of Nazi symbols, it was Smiley faces. Compete with a photocopied look that helped define the DIY punk rock scene.
As for the political message of the design, any comparison with Hitler is bound to be heavy-handed (and ridiculous in hindsight), but punk has never been known for its subtlety. And the Smiley-as-Nazi symbols is just as over-the-top in that it completely flips it’s meaning
They could have used sad faces or angry faces, but it was happy, essentially underlying the credibility of its message. In less than a decade, the Smiley had gone from love and happiness to irony and cynicism.
At least The Deak Kennedys’ music made a lot of people happy.
The Watchmen Smiley
In 1986 the Smiley returned to the pages of comic books in Alan Moore’s breakthrough series The Watchmen, which, along with being widely praised and critically-acclaimed, would achieve legendary status among comic book fans. The Smiley face is a reoccurring symbol throughout the books and is featured on the cover, notably tilted and blood-stained.
The books revolve around a team of somewhat anti-hero superheroes in an alternate history that imagines the United States winning the Vietnam War and the Watergate break-in was never exposed.
The Watchmen series comes with its own set of contemporary anxieties as the country is on the brink of war with the Soviet Union, and focuses on the moral struggles of the protagonists as it deconstructs and satirizes the superhero concept.
In a retrospective review, the BBC’s Nicholas Barber described it as “the moment comic books grew up”.
In the story, a costumed vigilante character named Rorschach investigates the murder of a government-employed superhero named The Comedian after finding his signage Smiley face pin splattered with blood. It’s notable that the Smiley is worn by the most corrupt and violent superhero.
The symbol is so pervasive in the series that it even appears on Mars, where the characters Jon and Laurie end up in the midst of a rock formation shaped like a Smiley. Life imitated art in early February of 2008 when a big Smiley was spotted on the face of the red planet by an orbiting satellite.
The following year, a major motion picture called “The Watchmen” was released. More about this in part three.
Smiley Goes to Parties
Acid House Smiley
Two years later, as if an antidote to the dark period in the life of the Smiley, the symbol was appropriated by a burgeoning music culture in the UK called Acid House, and was almost instantly synonymous with the sound and the parties.
The Smiley also returned to its simple roots in both the graphic style and what it symbolized: happiness.
The year 1988 became known as “The Second Summer of Love”, taking a cue from hippies almost exactly two decades earlier. This time, although the spirit of the Smiley was revived, the music and the vibe of these events were different.
Acid House music was upbeat and celebratory rather than sentimental and politically-charged, and the reveling that took place was confined to dark warehouses in early morning hours rather than daytime festivals in fields.
How did this come about? To make a long story short, in 1987 some London DJs discovered an exclusive club on a remote farm called Amnesia while on holiday in Ibiza, a town famous for international jet-setting visitors and non-stop parties.
Inspired by DJ pioneers like Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, and DJ International, who played American “house music” from Chicago, they took this epiphany back home with them.
Soon this handful of DJs were attempting to recreate the experience in London and other cities.
One of those DJs was Danny Rampling, who started throwing a club night with house music called Shoot, which became insanely popular. The Smiley face as the defining image of acid house was born, as the symbol infused into the logo, the flyers, the decor, and clothing.
Although most of the music was coming from the gritty and diverse underground dance music scenes of Chicago and New York, the UK promoters and party-goers were putting their own exuberant spin on it, and in 1988 the scene exploded, leading to full-blown raves and a decades-strong, worldwide electronic music culture that continues to this day.
Rampling says he got the idea from seeing someone at a club wearing a shirt covered in Smileys, but there was another, possibly more obvious inspiration at the time.
Bomb The Bass Smiley
Also in 1988, a certain sample-heavy record was getting lots of play by the DJs at some of these clubs. “Beat Dis” by British producer Bomb The Bass featured our good ol’ Smiley face on the cover, and many credit this record as the origin of the acid house Smiley. On some releases, it even had the blood splatter– clearly a reference to The Watchmen.
The record was a big hit around the world, peaking at #2 on the UK Singles Chart, and reaching #1 on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart for a week. There are over 25 different samples used in the track, ranging from Afrika Bambaataa to James Brown to Aretha Franklin, Prince, Public Enemy, and Philadelphia’s own Schooly D.
The song epitomized the emerging cut-and-paste aesthetic in electronic dance music, and the Smiley provided an instantly recognizable icon that was cut and pasted from graphic design history to go along with the fresh and exciting sound.
But did the Bomb the Bass Smiley predate the Club Shoom Smiley? If Rampling’s story is true and he decided on his logo before he saw this record, he must have been overjoyed when he got it. Because you know he had to have been playing it. Maybe everyone around that time was appreciating the Smiley again. They say fashion trends come in twenty-year cycles.
And like all trends, it came and went.
Cracking Down on Smiley
Like a condensed version of the Smiley’s initial trajectory from innocence to cynicism, the initial exuberance of this music scene turned dark within a year or two. By 1989, major newspapers were sounding the alarm about the decadence that was going on at these late night clubs– complete with Smiley faces in the front pages– causing a moral panic, and soon the police were cracking down, turning that smile upside down.
The Smiley’s ride with Acid House has risen and fallen along with the music’s popularity, but perseveres as its symbolic mascot and remains steadfastly un-ironic and earnestly happy– even if it’s warped or, shall we say, chemically-enhanced.
Jump ahead two years and across the pond to Seattle, where a little band you may have heard of released their multi-million-selling breakthrough album Nevermind in 1991. Nirvana had been playing small shows around the Northwest scene for a few years and had already released their debut album in 1989, making a name for themselves locally.
But nothing prepared them (or the rest of the world) for their phenomenal, genre-defining, and instantly classic second album. And along with the unforgettable cover art, their Smiley design– with its ex’d out eyes and lolling tongue– became one of the band’s enduring images. In the early ’90s, you couldn’t go to any rock concert or mall without seeing the T-shirt.
According to people who keep track of this stuff, the logo was drawn by the late great Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and was first seen on a flyer for their album launch party at a Seattle bar in September of 1991, and the T-shirt printing commenced by the end of the year. Was this yet another subversion of the Smiley? Yes, but it’s probably not that deep.
Although their music was a rebellion against (among other things) the more polished, commercial sound that predated it, the design seems about as deep as something you would see doodled on a book cover. Dude, it’s a Smiley– but he’s wasted. Or happily dead. In hindsight, and after his untimely and tragic death, it seems morbidly apropos.
Some people say that he was inspired by a similar Smiley that was a constant fixture on the marquee of the notorious Seattle strip club The Lusty Lady. The tongue is sticking out and the eyes look zonked out (ogling eyes?) but who knows.
But as I mentioned at the beginning of part one, we’re talking about a simple design that has probably been drawn by countless others. I could probably find something similar in my sketchbooks. The difference is that Nirvana blew up, and everyone wanted a piece. You could say it was…
Nowadays, you can get your own T-shirt from the Nirvana store. Or you can get one from Walmart, Target, Amazon, eBay, Urban Outfitters, and hundreds of other online stores. You can also get a bizarre variety of other branded items including seat belts, stress balls, baby onesies, license plates, shower curtains, lamps, “best friends” necklaces, and an air freshener.
Probably not what Kurt Cobain had in mind, but hey. Merch gotta merch. The design is so ubiquitous that it gives the original Smiley a run for its money. And people have cashed in. Does the following image look familiar?
In 2018, the fashion brand Marc Jacobs recently put out their take on the famous design, which says “Heaven” rather than the band name, with an “M” and a “J” for the eyes. Nirvana, LLC– the company formed by surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic– sued the fashion designer (along with Saks and Neiman Marcus) for copyright infringement.
To my eyes, it’s clearly a rip-off. And not the first time Marc Jacobs has done it. But that will be up to the courts to decide. Oddly enough, Marc Jacobs’ lawyers have filed motions to dismiss, arguing that not only that it’s different enough, but that Cobain owns the copyright, not Nirvana. Yeah, good luck with that. As of this writing, the case is going forward.
Evil Ernie Smiley
Around the same time, Nevermind was released in 1991, an independent horror comic debuted called Evil Ernie. The main character, “Evil” Ernie Fairchild is some kind of undead teenage psycho killer who has the power to make sketches come to life and wants to cause Megadeth: getting the world to unleash all of its nuclear weapons on itself. You know, happy stuff.
Anyway, Ernie’s partner/sidekick is a wise-cracking (and also evil) Smiley, who was somehow born from his pet rat. The Smiley is pinned to his jacket and gives him powers and provides comic relief. It would go on to achieve cult status, a big fan base in the comic community, change publishers, and get revived more than once. Like you’d expect from the undead.
Smiley The Psychotic Button, the evilest and most subversive version of our beloved Smiley yet, becomes the star of the series, and in later issues takes a more active role. He can move around freely and control the dead, with some kind of weird new back story as a guy named Richard who’s soul gets infused into a Smiley button. Yeah, it’s a whole thing.
The Evil Ernie comic book series changed hands multiple times, starting with Eternity Comics, then moving to Chaos, then Devil’s Due, and finally Dynamite Comics. The last published issue I could find was in 2016. Still, twenty-five years is a hell of a run for such humble beginnings, and creating its own iconic Smiley definitely earns it a place in Smiley history.
Will Evil Ernie and his Psychotic Smiley get revived from the dead again? A better question might be: when is the movie?
Forest Gump Smiley
As we come to the end of part two, we’ve come to the first example I mentioned in part one. The 1994 movie Forest Gump provides an entirely fictional origin story for the Smiley face. With the movie becoming such a huge hit, and the general public’s lack of knowledge of the true history of the Smiley face, it’s become cemented in people’s minds.
In the scene where a mud-caked Forrest is running a race, an enterprising T-shirt salesman offers him a clean yellow shirt, he wipes his face, and the rest is movie history. “Have a nice day!” says Forrest.
But like everything else in that movie, it’s made up. And it’s entirely possible that some percentage of the population thinks that the real story is something similar to the movie. If only someone would write the true story of the Smiley Face T-shirt!
In part three of the True Story of the Smiley Face T-shirt, we’ll get into the epic legal battle that ensued when Walmart stole the icon for their ad campaigns, what happened with Loufrani and his Smiley Company, what happened with Harvey Ball and his son, World Smiley Day, and how the Smiley icon still thrives in modern art, street art, major brands, and high fashion.
When you’re ready to make your own cultural icon for a T-shirt, fire up our newly-redesigned Design Studio, and get creative.
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 20 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.