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History of the Nirvana Smiley Face

Posted by Jesse Torres on

I can't believe it's been 25 years since my grunge days. As I graduated from college and began finding my place in the world, few things spoke to my soul like the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. To this day, every time I see the Nirvana "blissed out" smiley face with the drooling mouth and crossed-out eyes, a part of me gets transported back in time before wife, kids and mortgage.

About a month ago I heard the recognizable sounds of Smells Like Teen Spirit coming from my oldest daughter's bedroom. As I walked down the hall I could see her jumping up and down, moshing in her private pit. I stopped, took it in for a second, turned around and left her with her music. I'm pretty sure I felt a smile come over me.  

Story Behind the Nirvana Smiley Face

Lately I have been talking about Nirvana quite a bit. In fact, I have been rocking a BOLDFACE backpack featuring the iconic Nirvana smiley face for about a month.

My renewed interest in Nirvana created a curiosity in her strong enough to lead her to Spotify the band. While I'm not sure the music speaks to her like it did to me, she is obviously part of a new generation that keeps Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and grunge from becoming irrelevant. It's very cool to be able to have some music in common with her

History of the Nirvana Smiley Face.

This experience got me thinking this past weekend, as I stared at my Nirvana backpack. What is the story behind the Nirvana smiley face? Who came up with it? What does it mean?

Over the years that question has popped into my head but I never bothered looking into it. I think having a daughter who now listens to "my music" was enough for me to finally take some action and get an answer.

I'm sorry to report that the answer to that question left this earth with Kurt Cobain's passing on April 5, 1994. I'm happy to report that the answer to the question left this earth with Kurt Cobain's passing on April 5, 1994.

What I mean is that, while Kurt's death was tragic and left the world void of a great talent, there is something poetic about the fact that only he knew the answer to the question, What is the Story Behind the Nirvana Smiley Face?

First Appearance of the Nirvana Smiley Face Image

Most Nirvana aficionados nearly unanimously agree that the Nirvana smiley face image was drawn by Kurt Cobain. The drawing made its first public appearance on September 13, 1991, on a flyer for the release party for Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album.

History of the Nirvana Smiley Face

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

History of the Nirvana Smiley Face

Theories Regarding the Nirvana Smiley Face Image

In Kurt's absence many have put forward their theories regarding the origin of the Nirvana smiley face image. One in particular, seems plausible. Others seem unlikely. Nonetheless, Kurt's death created a mystery around the image. Below are the common theories for you to consider and decide.

The Lusty Lady Men's Club 

The Lusty Lady men's club theory is the commonly accepted source of Nirvana's smiley face image. The Lusty Lady Strip Club was located at 1315 First Avenue in downtown Seattle, Washington. The club used a happy face logo as part of its branding (see the bottom row, left of the text, in the image below).

 History of the Nirvana Smiley Face

Art Chantry, Seattle-based graphic artist to many great rock bands, gives credence to the Lusty Lady theory in an interview he gave to Greg Prato for his book, "Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music".

"That particular image was actually the logo for a strip club in downtown Seattle," states Chantry. "They had buttons with that image that they gave out on the street that were really popular."

The Acid House

Another theory cites the “The Acid House” logo as the inspiration for the Nirvana logo. Rumors are that Kurt occasionally visited this place.

Axl Rose

The Axl Rose theory suggests that Kurt Cobain drew the Nirvana smiley face as his interpretation of Guns n Roses singer Axl Rose.

History of the Nirvana Smiley Face

Other Theories

Other theories include that the image represents:

  • 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

While The Lusty Lady was the likely source of inspiration, the fact is that we'll probably never know the true inspiration behind the Nirvana smiley face image. And I kind of like that. I like the fact that Kurt was able to keep at least this one part of his life private and to himself. That puts another smile on my face. Rest in peace, Kurt.

History of the Nirvana Smiley FaceHistory of the Nirvana Smiley Face

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