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Subway token cufflinks, taxi print suspenders, the entire existence of Bond No. 9 perfumes — is there another city with as rich a souvenir apparatus as New York? London, maybe. But even Tube Socks can't touch the Big Apple's number one export: Souvenir T-shirts.
As a product of the city, I never had the opportunity to show up at school after mid-winter recess and stunt on my 8th grade class in a crisp Jekell and Hyde Club tee with the satisfied look of, "Yeah, I just went to New York City with my parents, what's good?" which is what I imagine to be the coldest thing you can do as a kid from any other part of the country.
On the flip side, residency has afforded me close to three decades of fluid anthropological observation of New York's souvenir T-shirt culture, and I've come up with a ranking of the tees you're most likely to encounter on street level, graded from most "New York State of Mind" to most "you are out of your mind, put that down and get out of my city."
I [Love] NY
This is the bagel-and-a-schmear of New York Souvenir T-shirts — the Top of the Rock, King of the Hill, A-Number-One. This is the populist cotton analog to a four-top at Rao's. Gershwin plays for this T-shirt. The ne plus ultra of New York souvenir tchotchke motifs is undoubtedly Milton Glaser's minimalist, pop art-inflected icon. Originally designed as part of a pro bono commission for a state tourism campaign in 1977, it's since become the city's de facto coat of arms.
This is a souvenir T-shirt of such peerless class and impeachable distinction that it transcends the genre entirely, ennobling take-out bags and bowls of gratis condoms alike. I buy a dozen every year and my holiday shopping is done. And guess what? No one is disappointed! "Another ‘I Love New York' tee?" they squeal, their eyes welling like so many Hudson river sunsets. Yes, and you are so welcome.
New York City (John Lennon, 1974)
When Bob Gruen photographed John Lennon on the roof of his East Side apartment in a T-shirt he bought off the sidewalk for five bucks in the summer of 1974, he could not have anticipated the number of people today who think buying the same shirt outside Guy Fieri's American Kitchen while a pack of rangy Elmos sizes them up is what passes for artistic statement.
Some perspective: In 1974, Lennon had already returned from a lost weekend in Hollywood that lasted more than a year, recorded Walls and Bridges while being trailed by the FBI, and fought a deportation case personally led by President Nixon. Lennon died to become a New Yorker; you're staying in the Marriott Marquis and just asked someone where the Sex and the City tour queue begins. Keep it moving, Stanford Blatch.
T-Shirts Designed to Look Like the Logos of '90s Fashion Labels But Upon Closer Inspection Simply Say "New York"
T-shirts designed to look like the logos of '90s fashion labels but upon closer inspection simply say "New York" manage to possess a deathless quality enjoyed by few others. These trompe l'oeil fascinators traditionally featured graphics that ape high-era Hilfiger, DKNY, and Armani Exchange, except in every instance "New York" appears where the brand lettering should. And they're really good!
Is there a better distillation of the New Yorker's blind bravado than subsuming the logos of international fashion companies for some 2-for-$20 schmattas? These can still be found, but perhaps meant more when the brands they were bogarting had heavier street cache. Now they exist as relics of a purer time when Tommy Hilfiger was just starting to exploit the hood for profit.
A family favorite among families who do not live anywhere near the city. Show your support for New York's finest and bravest by wearing their insignia questionably-reproduced on ill-fitting Gildan cotton and purchased from a third-party kiosk. Some kid from LA will always come to the city and think he's being subversive by opting for the Port Authority hoodie, and he will always be correct.
T-Shirts That Pair "New York" with Remarkably Unrelated Insignia
What even is going on here? Wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Che and the words "New York" under it is not an absurdist revival of Neo-Dada image-making in the tradition of Duchamp, savvily questioning the flattening of taste. It's the city taking you for $10 you never deserved. Other senseless variants include, but are not limited to: "New York [Fleur de Lis]" and "Brooklyn [Yankees Logo]."
T-Shirts Designed to Look Like a Subway Line But Upon Closer Inspection Are Simply the First Letter of a Neighborhood
Like, nah, there's no H train going to Harlem. Please take the Amtrak back to Indiana.
Remember when brands got their corporate synergy absolutely lit and opened a "Central Perk" set replica? Inexplicably, they chose to do this in Soho, even though you need not have known any of the girls at your college who contributed to its deeply skewed student-to-Friends-box-set ratio to know that Central Perk was supposed to be in Greenwich Village, which in turn existed only on a lot in Burbank. Why did they each have their own box set if they all knew each other from high school?
This is a good T-shirt to buy if you need to let people know you are unfit for human engagement.
BONUS T-SHIRT ROUND!
I recently saw a man in Chelsea wearing a T-shirt that read "HEAVEN WAS FULL." While ostensibly having nothing to do with New York, I like to believe that this is not the manner of shirt owned by anyone who has spent more than a week here. I have to believe this. So much depends on it.