What Does The Nirvana Smiley Face Logo Mean?

2 June 2018, 12:00

You’ve seen the classic t-shirts, but where did the blank-eyed, zonked out smiley face actually come from?

In September 1991, Nirvana - a fairly unremarkable grunge band from Seattle, Washington in the United States - suddenly became one of the biggest acts in the world, thanks to their million-selling second album, Nevermind.

For the next couple of years, the trio of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl got bigger and bigger - and you couldn’t walk down the street in any big town without seeing one of these t-shirts.

Nirvana Smiley T-Shirt
Nirvana Smiley T-Shirt. Picture: eBay

Framed with a band logo in the “Onyx” typeface, the zonked out smiley appeared on the front, with the following set of slogans on the back.

Nirvana Smiley T-Shirt - the back
Nirvana Smiley T-Shirt - the back. Picture: eBay

But what was the significance of the smiley face? Obviously based on the black and yellow smiley logo that had become popular in the 1970s, then became subtly subverted by the acid house craze in the late 80s, the image was obviously a comment on the inane, manufactured pop music that Nirvana and other grunge bands were kicking against.

According to Nirvana scholars, the image first made an appearance on a flyer announcing the launch party of the Nevermind album a the Re-Bar in Seattle on Friday 13 September 1991.

The logo was apparently designed by Kurt Cobain, and it’s long been thought that he was inspired by a similar googly-eyed face that appeared on the marquee of the notorious Seattle strip club, The Lusty Lady. The marquee was also regularly boast terrible puns based on the smutty activity taking place within.

Alongside the unforgettable image of a baby swimming after a dollar bill hooked onto a fishing line, the smiley logo was to become one of the enduring images of Nirvana’s short, but stellar career.