The Theories Behind Nirvana's Smiley Face

Here I am in my Target bought, need to wear a bra because it's so see-through, Nirvana smiley-face tee shirt. And as I put it on this morning it occurred to me, I really have no idea where the smiley face with the ex-ed out eyes even CAME FROM.

I've been a decent Nirvana fan for many years (by decent I mean, not necessarily a die-hard but certainly have a great appreciation for them and of course the mystique of Kurt Cobain).  But seeing this smiley face on shirts and back packs and hats etc, I just assumed it was the band logo and never gave it another thought.

Well, as it turns out and most Nirvana aficionados nearly unanimously agree, the Nirvana smiley face image was drawn by Kurt Cobain.  And the drawing made its first public appearance on September 13, 1991, on a flyer for the release party for Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album (left).

A second use of the image was found on Nirvana’s Flower Sniffin, Kitty Pettin, Baby Kissin Corporate Rock Whores t-shirt (below).

But that still doesn't really explain where and why Kurt created this particular image.  Another very solid theory is the The Lusty Lady men's club theory.  The Lusty Lady Strip Club was located on First Avenue in Seattle, where Kurt most certainly attended.  Check out the club's happy face logo at the bottom on the marquis.

Then there's the Axl Rose theory, which I just think is bogus but I guess worth mentioning.  Some say Kurt drew the Nirvana smiley face as his interpretation of Guns n Roses singer Axl Rose. But I fail to see it see it.  However, there definitely WAS a rift and it started with Kurt... here's some history on the subject as reported by Rolling Stone:

1991-1992: Kurt Badmouths Guns N' Roses
Axl was initially a Nirvana fan, even wearing a hat with the band's logo in the video for "Don't Cry," but the feeling apparently wasn't mutual. Promoting Nevermind in 1991, Kurt made every effort to draw a sharp line between what the two bands meant. "We're not your typical Guns N' Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say," Kurt told Seconds. The following year he told a Singapore publication, "Rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N' Roses."

1992: Kurt Refuses to Tour With GN'R
Despite Kurt's trash talk, Axl was determined to bring Nirvana on tour with GN'R. "Guns N' Roses was about to do this massive stadium tour with Metallica, and they wanted us to open," Dave Grohl would later recall. "So Axl had been calling Kurt nonstop. One day we're walking through an airport and Kurt says, 'Fuck. Axl Rose won't stop calling me.'"

But the theories don't end there- others include that the image could be:

  • A drunk person
  • A person on drugs
  • A drawing under the bridge he slept under
  • A face the people in the crowd would make when watching Nirvana perform

Finally, and I hate to say it because it's no fun speaking ill of the dead.  But isn't it evidently possible that even way back in 1991 when Kurt sketched this, he was depicting a crude and simple likeness of himself?  He was certainly known to be complicated and self-deprecating after all.  None of the theories I've read state such an obvious theory, so I thought I'd throw it out there.

Unfortunately, the answer to this burning question of the reason behind the sketch was buried with it's creator back in 1994, and Kurt keeping us guessing and talking and wondering seems exactly his style.

I’m not like them, but I can pretend / … The day is done and I’m havin’ fun / I think I’m dumb / Maybe just happy.

Certainly, he wasn't that dumb after all.

-Amy Brooks