The Beginner’s Guide to Vintage Metal T-Shirts

Fashion
Vintage dealer Harry Cantwell shares his 10 favorite shirts of all time.
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Illustration by Robert Vargas

There are few routes to strong personal style more reliable than a perfectly worn vintage band T-shirt. Rihanna knows this. Kanye knows it. Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo knows it, too. And in the world of vintage tees, nothing cuts quite as deep as a metal tee. The only real question is how deep you want to go. Perhaps you’re into a Cradle of Filth shirt featuring a masturbating nun and the words JESUS WAS A CUNT spelled out in big block letters? Ok, maybe that’s a tough sell. How about a suicide motif? No? Maybe some basic pentagrams and skulls on a Slayer or Danzig shirt? Wherever your tolerance for putridity lies on the gross-out scale, there is a classic metal shirt for you.

Just like the world of Grateful Dead tees has exploded, so has the metal shirt market. But no matter your status—be it a lifelong Obituary lover or a newbie dipping your toes into blast beats—vintage dealer Harry Cantwell has a shirt for you. A dedicated metal fan and the son of a jewelry dealer, he’s combined his two passions to create Never Gonna Turn Down Again, an outpost operating online and high-end vintage markets. His taste is impeccable and his knowledge is vast. Get him talking and the soft-spoken Californian will gently explain the origin of every pentagram and upside cross ever printed on cotton.

We asked him to pick his top 10 metal shirts of all time. Narrowing down his favorites to 10 was a painful process for Cantwell, if a lot less painful than the images depicted in some of the designs. He broke down how he arrived at this particular selection, with a sense of history, style, and a deep love for skulls.

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Danzig

No conversation about metal aesthetics is complete without Glenn Danzig. With his legendary punk band the Misfits and his solo work as Danzig—both with a serious emphasis on presentation—he’s become a sort of fairy godfather to the dark world of metal aesthetics. Cantwell’s pick is a design from the late ’80s, before Danzig turned into a bit of a parody of himself. Even before then, he was never really scary like some metal groups,—more campy. His shirts are a great introduction if Phantom of the Opera is still the scariest piece of art you’ve experienced. “Danzig was really early on making shirts that had bible quotes on them and inverted crosses—[tropes] that are really common now, where bands take religious imagery and twist it just enough where it becomes kind of menacing,” Cantwell says. And while he says he loves “the cheesiest metal shirts,” he notes that “this one has a touch of sophistication to it. Danzig doing that wasn’t just about making a shirt that was like gonna like piss off your parents. He clearly loved weird Catholic imagery, but also wanted to twist it a bit to his own ends.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Cradle of Filth

“So on this shirt is a masturbating nun, I guess is the easiest way to put it,” Cantwell says, “and the phrase ‘vestal masturbation.’” For obvious reasons, it’s arguably the most offensive shirt of all time—and one of the most notorious. “I almost questioned putting the shirt on this list because I almost feel like it was too obvious,” says Cantwell. Because of its ubiquity in the metal universe, and the blatant desire to offend, the shock value almost cancels itself out. Cradle of Filth’s music is similar: dark at times, but playful and silly at others, more of a romp than a Blair Witch-style walk in the woods. But this isn’t even the most offensive Cradle of Filth can get. “There’s another version of this shirt that has ‘Jesus is a cunt’ in huge letters on the back, which is probably like the most infamous metal shirt ever made. Multiple people have been arrested for wearing it in the UK.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Cannibal Corpse

Cannibal Corpse’s song “Hammer Smash Face” is as close as you come to a lighters-up classic in death metal. Surprisingly, though, for the endless amounts of merch they’ve made (they really have found some creative ways to depict skeletons butchering other skeletons), this design inspired by that song is relatively rare. “This is an incredibly iconic death metal tee that you just can’t find. So to me that’s kind of like that makes it really exciting,” Cantwell says. It’s from a ’93 European tour, and I don’t know if it was ever available in the States. It has that perfect combination of being incredibly iconic, it’s a song that’s really beloved by a band that’s super beloved and, but also finding one is like, it’s like, you know, one in a million.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Fuck Christ Tour

“Jesus Is a Cunt” is a little bit funny, but “Fuck Christ” is just dark. That’s partly contextual: the black metal scene around this time, in the early ’90s, was distinguished for its small population of literal murderers and church burners. Many if not most people involved in the lifestyle enjoyed the theatricality of it, but not all of them. “In ’93, black metal was very legitimately very underground, so from a historical standpoint, I think this is one of the most important black metal shirts ever made,” Cantwell says, of this one highlighting an early black metal tour. “And aesthetically, it’s insane. I love that the front has no band list, it’s just, ‘Fuck Christ,’ like a statement of intent. You have to look at the back of the shirt to actually get the info of what you’re looking at.” It’s gnarly, but that’s the point, Cantwell notes. “I think the attitude of black metal at the time was just so confrontational and so like, being evil at any cost—obviously that’s a slippery slope and ends up in some bad places—but I feel like this shirt does really sum up that attitude, which was a real ‘fuck the world’ kind of thing. You had to be really in it to be in it back then.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Eyehategod

The members of Eyehategod, a long-running sludge metal group from New Orleans, have lived hard lives. One of the founding members, drummer Joey LaCaze, died of respiratory failure in 2013; singer Mike IX Williams has been jailed for possession, and in 2017 received a liver transplant after years of suffering from cirrhosis. The gruffness of their music reflects that reality, and their merch, looking somewhere between a ransom note and a Kara Walker cutout, certainly does, too. As Cantwell says,“This is probably the most legitimately unnerving shirt on the list because it’s real world horrors that they deal with—the kind of everyday horror that we sort of don’t really even register that much. The broader public sees a lot of metal as pretty escapist and fantasy driven. Nothing about Eyehategod is fake.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Metallica/Venom

Metallica have made some truly terrible music in recent years, but they’re not the most famous metal band of all time for no reason. The band very much emerged from the underground, as proven by this T-shirt printed for a joint tour with metal legends, Venom. “I chose this shirt as an example of [one] that really captures a place and time,” Cantwell says, “to show how much history you can convey with a T-shirt. It’s just a really interesting convergence of metal history that encapsulates a small period of time that’s really, really important: the passing of the torch British early ’80s British [bands] over to thrash. It’s almost like you can see that literally happening on this shirt.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Nordic Metal Bootleg

Just like with the Dead, bootleg tees are where things get weird in metal. This shirt, an early ’90s boot that takes its inspiration from a black metal compliation, has sort of wonky charm and amateur authenticity. “From a design standpoint, I think it’s just so crazy. It totally has that rap tee look to it,” says Cantwell. “It’s not like what any of these bands would choose their shirts to look like. And I think for that reason, it’s got a real special place in my heart.” Bootlegs often mean happy accident, and Cantwell delights in this shirt’s one decidedly un-evil mistake. “One great detail about this is on the back, the Marduk’s logo is upside down, so the upside down cross is flipped right side up.

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Slayer

You can’t go wrong with Slayer. They’re the most legendary metal band of all time, and have a perfect logo. This shirt is interchangeable with hundreds more, all equally iconic, but Cantwell loves this one for its simplicity. “Slayer has like a bunch of really great shirts from this time period. This period to me [the mid ’80s, when they released the classic album], Reign in Blood blood is so razor sharp. There’s no fat to it, there’s nothing on it that’s superfluous” he says. “It’s just 30 minutes of fast, tight, intense, evil metal and that’s how that’s how the shirt feels to me.”

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Saint Vitus

“Saint Vitus were dirt poor and fucked up all the time, playing this slow, sort of depressive, hazy metal in a time when no one cared,” Cantwell says. “I really feel like this shirt captures their vibe. There’s this real road weary, sort of melancholy quality to it. And from a shirt collector’s standpoint, there are bands that, at least at the time, had very little merch. Saint Vitus probably didn’t have money to make merch and there probably wasn’t a ton of demand.” The band has garnered cult status in recent years—and, naturally, so has their incredibly rare merch.

Courtesy of Harry Cantwell
Courtesy of Harry Cantwell

Type O Negative

Another group whose music leans theatrical, Type O Negative was the vehicle of the late Brooklyn Parks Department worker Peter Steele. (Despite his history of assault, Steele maintains a strong fandom in death.) That specificity, Cantwell says, plays out in the merch. “Type O Negative are such a weird, idiosyncratic band. It’s clearly one person’s vision.nd if you described them to someone—‘It’s like Black Sabbath but gothier, but it also kind of sounds like the Beatles at times, and there’s also like New York hardcore in there,’ I don’t think it would make a lot of sense. This particular design is the one that really takes me back to being 13 and first discovering them.” This shirt, he explains, captures that strangeness. “From a design standpoint, it was the only time they ever used this logo that I’m aware of. I really love this trippy, mossy graveyard looking kind of thing. They usually have kind of a totalitarian approach to fonts, with big block letters, but I like that in this shirt they really leaned into the spooky-ooky, gothy Addams Family thing.”

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