I’m something of a t-shirt aficionado, but I’m also pretty picky about what I’ll actually wear. My tastes bend toward cool t-shirt designs that are both strange and dark, but I also enjoy bright colors. These ten t-shirts represents a very small sampling of what’s actually out there this year, but I’ve taken some time to explain what I like so much about all ten of these garments. This is my personal list, and these are all shirts that I would actually wear in public.
1. Lemuria – “Noble Beast”
Buffalo, NY’s Lemuria are famous for their blend of introspective pop punk and traditional indie rock, but they’re also pretty well known for their merchandise. There have been a ton of Lemuria shirts to choose from in 2012, but this one is my favorite. The hybrid ram/owl/bear is bizarre but aesthetically pleasing, and is also positively striking in black and white with Lemuria’s instantly recognizable logo on top of the image. Designer Craig Horky came up with a shirt that will be highly desirable for years to come.
2. Gotham Rogues
For some reason I love shirts based on sports franchises that don’t actually exist, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. The Rogues play in Bruce Wayne’s hometown of Gotham City, and this design is perfect for a football team based in such a dark and brooding city. The logo is simple and elegant like the best sports icons are, and it depicts a character similar to radio drama, pulp magazine and comic book hero The Shadow—who was a big influence on the creation of Batman. The colors also evoke our favorite costumed vigilante’s costume quite nicely. This is a great Batman shirt without being a Batman shirt.
3. Piñata Anatomy
Designed by Minneapolis-based Carmichael Collective, this shirt is basic but brilliant. At once delightful and sort of disgusting, it shows an anatomical rendering of a piñata that’s chock full of candy organs. The types of candy used for the piñata’s innards and their placement are the real winner here, combined with the papier-mâché party favorite’s trademark bright colors. It looks perfect on a white t-shirt.
4. The Day the Saucers Came Issue 2, Vol. 6
Using words from a piece by famed comic book scribe and novelist Neil Gaiman along with his own artistic talents, Ben Templesmith has a hit on his hands. Templesmith himself is an acclaimed comic book illustrator, and is especially well known for 30 Days of Night. The mountainous wolf and its serpent-like tongue combines with nails, splatter, a full moon and other design elements. It’s a complex design executed in an elegant and simple manner, which is why it’s so successful. At once menacing, mysterious and engaging, this is one of the best shirts I’ve seen this year.
5. Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a sucker for anything that glows in the dark (Lego ghosts, anyone?). This shirt escapes the realm of pure kitsch thanks to John Cebollero’s excellent illustration. The troubled (and sometimes troubling) horror and science fiction genius HP Lovecraft looks amazing in Cebollero’s trademark style, complete with otherworldly tentacles snaking around behind him. The green on black design is perfect for this shirt’s unsettling subject matter, which announces the design as both bold and eerie. There are plenty of kitschy, campy shirts depicting many of Lovecraft’s famous monsters, but this tasteful piece depicts the man himself.
6. Bone Dance – “Ouroboros”
Jeff Rogers’ design shows the classic serpent eating its own tail, which expresses notions of re-creation, the psyche, the eternal return and the cyclical nature of life. The armored plates on the snake’s back resemble vertebrae as well, which ties into the band’s name. The ancient, bearded skull in the center of the snake loop is both fearsome and mystical, which is perfect imagery for the Boise, ID band’s brand of sludgy hardcore. The rust-colored ink on a light colored shirt sets it apart from the pack. This shirt features a strong, unified design and is a great conversation piece.
7. Keep it Shining
The product of Brazilian artist Fabio Sestrem Goulart, this shirt is a perfect blend of dark, neutral and bright colors. The key and ribcage serve as an anchor point for all of the strange design elements on the shirt, which appear in nearly blinding neon. Organs become branches for the bird to stand on while it gazes longingly at a heart diamond. It’s a fairly strange and abstract piece, but that’s why it’s so great—the fantastic color palette doesn’t hurt either, of course.
8. Title Fight – “Devil/Panther”
Pennsylvania punk band Title Fight has been making waves for nearly 10 years and one of their 2012 t-shirts is a testament to their legacy. The 3D block lettering looks great with its red and yellow highlights and is very readable despite its tumbled arrangement. Riding atop the band’s name is a predatory panther being ridden by an infant devil, both of which are rendered in a great retro-cartoon style. This design would not look out of place on a bomber plane or a sailor’s upper arm, but it looks absolutely perfect on a t-shirt.
9. Van Whalen
Okay, I’m not just a sucker for things that glow in the dark—I’m also a sucker for both whales and Van Halen (Roth years only, please). It’s not often that a punny shirt catches my eye or makes me do anything other than cringe and mutter under my breath, but this one is an exception. Artist Jeremy Fish presents the classic Van Halen logo (with one small change), and it looks great floating above the bizarre whale-van hybrid of the central image. There’s something about the whale itself that makes this instantly endear itself to me, and it perfectly breaks up the pink and purple of the lettering. This shirt is both vibrant and clever without going overboard in either area.
10. Pixelated Spider-Man
Good comic book shirts are hard to come by, especially when they come from a comic book company’s official store. This shirt, however, presents Spider-Man’s iconic visage in a way that’s both new and familiar. The pixelated style is a great look for our beloved wall-crawler, and the simple design is much better than the dull and complex presentation that most comic book shirts use. This shirt epitomizes ‘less is more.’ Well done, Marvel.
Like I said earlier, ten t-shirts is a very small sample of what’s out there. Great artists and designers contribute their work to t-shirts every day, and there’s no way to see or wear all of them. Your opinions are likely very different than mine, so feel free to share your top 10 shirts below!
About the author
Adam Farwell is a writer, blogger and designer. He generally blogs about design, marketing, small business branding and the various creative projects he’s involved in. He currently writes for the funny shirts retailer funnyshirts.org.