What Does The Nirvana Smiley Face Logo Mean?

5 April 2019, 20:00 | Updated: 10 September 2019, 13:15

The classic t-shirt is currently part of a lawsuit, 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.

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.

The famous t-shirt is currently the basis of a lawsuit between the band and fashion company Marc Jacobs, whose recent "Redux Grunge Collection" is alleged to have used some of the "smiley face" imagery - an accusation the fashion brand are refuting.

The Marc Jacobs Redux Grunge Collection, December 2018
The Marc Jacobs Redux Grunge Collection, December 2018. Picture: Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

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.

Nirvana Perform Live In Amsterdam
Nirvana Perform Live In Amsterdam. Picture: Getty

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.