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The Most Iconic Sayings T-shirts of All Time

by Kate Degen

in CustomInk News & Events

Say what? You love t-shirts too? What about iconic sayings t-shirts? You might be a fan of our 100 most iconic t-shirts of all time list, so now we’ve taken a closer look at our list and broken them down by genre. From 90s brands to quirky movie characters, our most iconic sayings t-shirts have something for everyone, and might even inspire you to create a saying tee of your own.

20. YOLO


A mantra started by the rapper Drake, YOLO (an acronym for “You Only Live Once”) was a nominee for 2012 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. It can now be seen on t-shirts sold by street vendors all over the country. While many have embraced the phrase, (and lovingly slapped it on a t-shirt), many find it, and the meaning behind it, “stupid”. So much so that Drake apologized for coining the term on Saturday Night Live in 2014, saying he didn’t know our “annoying friends and coworkers” would use it so much.

19. Coed Naked


Famous for turning any sport or activity into one you can do in the buff, these shirts and their slogans were popular amongst high school & college athletes in the ’80s and ’90s. Coed Naked was trademarked in 1991, and was initially popular at the University of New Hampshire, creator Scott MacHardy’s alma mater. MacHardy has said that while inappropriate catchphrases wouldn’t be that big of a deal now, back then the shirts made people uncomfortable. Coed Naked tees got so popular that eventually they were banned by school dress codes.

18. Don’t Mess With Texas


From anti-littering campaign to unofficial state motto, “Don’t Mess with Texas” is proof that a great slogan can take on a life of its own. Commissioned by the Texas Department of Transportation in 1985, the saying has grown to cult popularity today. In 1998, LeAnn Rimes starred in an ad for the campaign. At the time, 96 percent of Texans had heard of “Don’t Mess with Texas,” but only 61 percent understood the phrase meant “don’t litter”.

17. Choose Life


Worn by Wham! in its “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, the design was an early foray into social messaging on t-shirts. It also appeared in Queen’s video for “Hammer to Fall”. Designed by Katharine Hamnett to fight back against drug abuse and suicide, this & other Hamnett designs fused social issues and fashion.

16. Don’t Worry, Be Happy


“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was sung by Bobby McFerrin in September 1988, and became the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The saying, and song, became the source of a political snafu when George H.W. Bush used it in his campaign without permission. This caused McFerrin to speak out against Bush and pull the song from his show line up. Maybe not so happy?

15. I Survived…


If you can eat it, ride it, or visit it, chances are you can get an “I Survived …” t-shirt at the gift shop. This iconic design has spawned infinite incarnations for just about any experience that doesn’t kill you. Some notable classics? “I Survived the Tower of Terror,” along with shirts nodding to spring break and political administrations.

14. We Can Do It!


Commissioned by Westinghouse Company, J. Howard Miller created a series of posters to help boost morale during WWII. Commonly conflated with Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover featuring Rosie the Riveter, both have become iconic images for WWII and women’s rights. The image not only led to women working, but to hundreds of thousands of women joining the Armed Forces. In May 1942, Congress instituted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, later known as the Women’s Army Corps. The image has resurfaced recently as “nevertheless, she persisted” t-shirts gain popularity.

13. Jesus is My Homeboy


As inspiration for fashion photographer David LaChapelle’s Last Supper art exhibit, the Jesus is my Homeboy shirt is quite captivating. While LaChapelle is known for making the shirt famous, Van Zan Frater vows he is the shirt’s original creator. He says the shirt was inspired by a time he was jumped by a gang in LA, and was sure he’d die. But he threw his hands up and said “Jesus is my homeboy,” and the gang members repeated it, then let him go. So he felt compelled to share the message—on t-shirts.

12. Where’s the Beef?


Octogenarian Clara Peller had some major beef (or lack thereof) with the size of burger patties. You knew when a simple slogan rose to enter presidential politics that Wendy’s was onto something. Thecommercial was created by the old Dancer Fitzgerald Sample agency. A year after the commercial aired, Wendy’s and Teller parted ways, since she appeared in a Prego sauce commercial saying “I found it!”—Wendy’s thought the only place she could find the beef was with them. Wendy’s answered the beefy question in 2011, when they launched a new line of burgers and said “here’s the beef!”

11. Make 7 Up Yours


The front: Make 7. The back: Up Yours. This juvenile play on the “Un-Cola” slogan of the time (Make 7Up Yours) made this shirt good for a chuckle and a smile. From 1999-2005, this Y2K campaign by ad agency Young & Rubicam, featured Orlando Jones walking around telling everyone to “Make 7 Up Yours,” to which he received…less than friendly responses.

10. No Fear


Created in 1989 by NASCAR driver Mark Simo, the No Fear brand was quite popular in the mid ’90s during the rise of extreme sports. No Fear shirts show off catchy slogans about living life on the edge and defying death. Pair that with a sharp-eyed, intense logo, and you had yourself quite the t-shirt trend. In 2000,the brand opened its first retail store, and in 2003 launched the No Fear energy drink.

9. Have a Nice Day


The road to iconic tee was a lot longer than Forrest’s run, starting in 1943 as a Swedish film promo and blossoming as the novelty brainchild of two guys from Philly as “Have a Happy Day” in 1972. Somehow “happy” later got switched to “nice.” But, some of us might believe that the true inspiration was the struggling t-shirt salesman in Forrest Gump, who wanted to put Forrest’s face on a t-shirt but couldn’t draw very well. Instead, he was inspired by a mud smiley face created by Forrest wiping his face off, and according to Gump, “he made a lot of money.”

8. Keep Calm and Carry On


During WWII, the British Government needed morale boosting posters to display across the country. The first two posters “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring us to Victory,” and “Freedom is in Peril” were posted on public transit, in shop windows, and basically everywhere else. The third, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was only meant to be used if Germany invaded Britain, which never happened. It was thought that the posters were destroyed, but they were discovered in a pile of old books in 2000. The Keep Calm and Carry On phrase speaks to a new generation of beleaguered masses, and has become a favorite for mugs, posters, and of course, t-shirts.

7. Kiss Me I’m Irish


Popular on St. Paddy’s Day, the phrase is a nod to the Blarney Stone, since legend says kissing it will bring you good luck. The next best thing? An Irish person! Ancesty.com says there are 2 stories about kissing the stone with luck. First, the builder of Blarney Castle needed some luck in a lawsuit in the 1440s. The goddess of love told him to kiss a stone, so he did, and he won! Another story says that Cormac Teige McCarthy needed to convince Queen Elizabeth I to keep his land. He kissed the stone and it gave him the gift of eloquent speech—so he was able to convince her to keep his land!

6. I’m With Stupid


… and it was genius. The grandaddy of the directional t-shirt elicited a symphony of juvenile snickers at the expense of thousands of unsuspecting bystanders.

5. …And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt


As custom t-shirts gained popularity as destination-travel gifts, a humorous backlash developed in the form of this saying on t-shirts for nearly every spot imaginable.

4. Just Do It – Nike


Advertising exec Dan Wieden credits his inspiration for this iconic advertising campaign to the final words of a convict before execution. Hey! If he can face the firing squad, you can definitely run that marathon. On a positive note, the Just Do It campaign may have just saved Nike. The brand was going through tough times and had laid of 20 percent of its workers when the slogan was launched. In the decade that followed, Nike’s sales increased by 1000 percent.

3. Frankie Say Relax


To overrule censoring of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song “Relax,” in 1984, label owner Paul Morley printed “FRANKIE SAY RELAX” on t-shirts. It has become something of an graphical inspiration in recent years, with block letter tees becoming all the rage. Morley has said that the design was based on Katharine Hamnett’s t-shirts—like “CHOOSE LIFE,” also on this list.

2. Vote for Pedro


Wildly popular after the cult hit movie Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004, the Vote for Pedro shirt has since gained mass appeal. While it’s a relatively simple design on a white/black ringer tee, the movie created quite a visual imprint during Napoleon’s famous dance scene. The shirt has been created by many stores for resale, but those looking to make their own can use the font “Cooper Black” to get that authentic look.

1. I ♥ NY


In an almost eureka moment, designer Milton Glaser sketched “I ♥ NY” on a napkin in the 1970s. The logo was used to promote tourism in New York, at a time when the city was plagued with crime and losing visitors. The New York State Department of Economic Development owns the trademark to the logo, and it’s still used to promote NYC and New York State. The classic font used is American Typewriter. The t-shirt has become one of the most worn t-shirts of all time—and our most iconic!

About the Author - Kate Degen


Kate wants her work to impact the little but important moments in people’s lives—like birthdays, anniversaries, and family celebrations. She loves coming up with witty copy that might inspire someone to create an awesome t-shirt!

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