This Space For Rent

Photo by James BunoanSometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and the picture of the perky brunette on the cover (she of the Dorothy Hamill shag haircut and the fakey red-white-and-blue tuxedo T-shirt) spoke volumes about The Great American T-Shirtbook. The book, in turn, had a whole lot to say about making your own slogan T-shirt, if the one The Man was trying to sell you was no good.

Along with an awesome picture of Henry Winkler perched on the fender of his Rolls-Royce—Poverty Sucks!—the book offered 25 slogans to put on your very own handmade slogan tee.

Many are like hieroglyphs from a lost civilization. Handle With Care, Dangerous Curves and Call [Phone Number] reveal what post-structuralists call the satisfaction of being a subject in social space. Translation: the T-shirt announces our desire to be looked at as sex objects. This Space for Rent represents (a) the dawning recognition that human beings are mere commodities and (b) the spread of consumer culture to the body itself.

Sexual innuendo was everywhere, of course, but it's difficult to know 30 years later whether Trespassers Will Be Violated constituted an extra-legal anti-rape warning or an invitation to particularly dangerous sex. Likewise, it's impossible to say whether I Brake for Animals was merely the transfer to a T-shirt of a popular environmentalist slogan or the translation of that slogan into a sexually charged claim that the wearer would burn rubber and throw off dense clouds of acrid smoke while stopping abruptly for the chance to engage in public sex. Others—No Trespassing and Hands Off, for example—suggest a public-sex backlash.

Ride On plays on the earnest idealism of the just-passed 1960s affirmation "right on!"—assent, exhortation and engagement—to produce something about hedonism and escape. See the other '70s favorite AWOL, which turns the 1960s epithet (for draft-age men avoiding service in Vietnam) into a bold social-political stand.

Like Reefer Madness, High suggests the infatuation with the sudden social freedom to tell everybody you smoke pot. Today, so many people smoke pot that the exceptional shirt slogan would read, "Not High."

The popular T-shirt slogan Canned Heet may be lost to the mists of time. What does this mean? Hawaii Energy and Environmental Technology? The gasoline anti-freeze? A misspelling of the 1970s band Canned Heat, whose slogan—"Don't forget to boogie!"—remains a timely reminder that life is fleeting? The slogan Make Lemonade is clearly a reference to an age-old aphorism (when existence produces a bumper crop of bitter fruit, add sugar and water, then chill for something refreshing) and must be seen as an offshoot of the 1970s Happy Face phenomenon. Of all the slogans here, one is truly prescient: I Gave at the Office moved the door-slamming conversation-closer on charitable giving from the domestic to the public domain. Ronald Reagan would follow. I could go on for pages about the persistence of ethnic pride in a global economy—Kiss Me, I'm Irish or Polish or Italian or Welsh or whatever—but this essay is long enough, so let me say simply, Kiss Me, I'm Finnish.


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