I won’t wear a T-shirt that advertises a product or a company. The way I figure, if I’m going to be a walking billboard, you’re going to have to pay me – assuming you can coax me into doing it at all. The closest I come are T-shirts advertising a cause I support, such as the Free Software Foundation, or a small band or art exhibit I happen to like. But, in reaction to the trend towards the billboard T-shirt, my preference is for T-shirt art that is a joke to me, but is obscure to most other people.
During the 1990s, one of my prize possessions was a Miskatonic University T-shirt. Readers of H. P. Lovecraft will recognize the name of the university whose faculty often explored the supernatural, and whose library contained a private collection full of deadly occult lore, such as the Necronomicon. The shirt showed some pseudo-classical buildings with tentacles coming out of the building, and students fleeing from it. Since I was a sessional instructor at the time, I wore that T-shirt around the English Department a lot (which, come to think of it may have something to do with the fact that I parted from academia; undoubtedly, the rather humorless chair thought I was making a statement – and, looking back, I suppose I was).
A few years ago, my favorite obscure T-shirt was from the Linux Journal. On the back, it read, “In a world without fences, who needs gates?” Members of the free software community will recognize that as part of a longer comment that used to be common in many people’s email signature: “In a world without walls, who needs windows? In a world without fences, who needs gates?” No doubt Microsoft’s legal counsels would like to eradicate the comment, but the lack of capital letters leaves the reference open to interpretation. Whenever I wear this T-shirt, someone is sure to come up to me on the street and congratulate me on it, but most people walk past it blankly.
Another favorite of mine reads simply, “++ungood” (read “double plus ungood”).The slogan is Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. As you may recall, part of the motivation behind Newspeak was to regularize and simplify English so as to remove certain tendencies of thought. Specifically, rather than use a list of comparatives like good, better, best, Orwell’s language for totalitarians reduced them all to variations of good. Similarly, rather than having “bad” as a separate word, Newspeak reduced it to the opposite of good. So, “++ungood” means “bad” or, more accurately “wicked,” and carries a political overtone of “politically undesirable” as well.
But my latest acquisition is the most obscure of all. It comes courteous of Ben Mako Hill, an executive of the Free Software Foundation and a strong advocate of free culture, who kindly put the artwork online for anyone to use free. Meant to resemble the exercise gear issued by universities that students once stole but can now buy as souvenirs in most campus book stores, it reads “Property of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.” Proudhon, as every scholar of anarchist philosophy (and nobody else) knows, is the political writer who coined the phrase “Property is theft.”
What I like about these obscure T-shirts (besides the polite but puzzled look down at the T-shirt shop where I get them made up) is that, although most people don’t get them, they are often excuses for people to start talking to you. And when someone does understand them, you know that you have at least some small thing in common with them. So, I foresee my obscure T-shirt collection growing.