I was sitting on a beach down the shore this summer, reading a book that set my mind wandering in the direction of Wildwood boardwalk t-shirts. This happens about as often as you’d think, but Patrick Wyman’s The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World (excerpted at Defector!) was not a book in which I expected to find boardwalk shirt commentary—the 40 years referred to in the title are 1490 to 1530. But in a chapter about the spread of Martin Luther’s ideas, this struck me:
Melchior Lotter was a printer in Leipzig, and an accomplished and successful one at that. Early in 1518, he printed an edition of Johann Tetzel’s response to Luther, and then two editions of the official Roman rebuttal to Luther’s critique of indulgences. Just a few weeks later, however, he printed an edition of Luther’s works, and even opened a branch office in Wittenberg the following year to service Luther’s needs. Before long, he became one of Luther’s close collaborators. Lotter was not looking for controversy. He wasn’t a true believer in the Reformation or its message. He simply saw the direction the winds of profit were blowing.
One thing Melchior Lotter (the Elder, the British Museum informs me) has in common with Wildwood boardwalk t-shirt sellers: They will absolutely just print whatever makes them the most money. Only you can decide whether the messages on Wildwood shirts this year were as historically important as Sermon on Indulgences and Grace.
I ❤️ hot moms
I don’t think I have a unified theory of Wildwood boardwalk t-shirts—I’ll have to come up with one of those before I do a book—but one thing that really helps a shirt spread around the boardwalk is its ability to be transformed. “I ❤️ hot moms” and its derivatives were the No. 1 shirt of 2021 because it was easy for every t-shirt shop to edit it into whatever a customer wanted. It’s a shirt with a simple graphic and slogan in Cooper Black font. I ❤️ hot grandmoms. I ❤️ hot dads. I ❤️ Hot Pockets would’ve been a pretty good parody. I didn’t see anyone do that one though.
The shirt of the summer comes via Danny Duncan, a YouTube personality whose most recent video is “I Jumped A Monster Truck!” You can get this shirt at Zumiez at the mall, or on Duncan’s official website, dannyduncan69.com. This is actually the second year in a row Duncan had a hot shirt; in 2020 he even got a feature in The New York Times for his “Virginity Rocks!” t-shirts. An excerpt:
“I have sex, obviously, but I want people to do whatever they want to do and not be pressured into anything,” Mr. Duncan said. “I sell ‘Practice Safe Sex,’ too, which could be funny but is also a positive message at the end of the day.”
Liking attractive mothers is obviously not a new phenomenon—here’s a 2008 essay ruminating on being a hot mom—and Duncan’s shirt is less vulgar than, say, the American Pie version of the same sentiment. Also, yes, the guy who wears cheeky, overly aggressive sex shirts was accused of sexual assault earlier this month.
I’m not perverted, I’m Italian
In early August, the New York Attorney General’s office released a report on the conduct of then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That conduct: Not good! The report found Cuomo created a “toxic” work environment and sexually harassed 11 women. Cuomo resigned, but took pains to make clear that he was not sorry. On his way out Cuomo raised a number of defenses, including an assertion that his Italian-American upbringing meant he was overly touchy. A Fox News show called Watters’ World ran a graphic. And then comedian Mike Rainey made a very funny tweet.
By that weekend there were competing versions of this shirt actually on the boardwalk. I emailed Rainey to ask him how it felt to have brought this into existence.
Did you vacation in Wildwood in the summer?
I grew up in Upper Darby, Penn. and almost every summer, we vacationed in Wildwood. I loved everything about the place. My parents had insane work ethics, so it was nice seeing them get to relax and just enjoy life for a week there each summer. One of my most vivid memories was of my mom making me pose for a Wild West photo shoot on the Wildwood boardwalk. It was unfortunate foreshadowing, as I ended up spending a lot of time drinking whiskey, gambling, and blowing entire paychecks at brothels.
Why do you think this tweet went viral?
I think maybe why the tweet resonated with people was because so many of us can identify with buying painfully inappropriate Wildwood boardwalk t-shirts that we could never wear anywhere besides that cursed place. It’s Degenerate Disney. For 51 weeks of the year, your dad’s sole focus is on being an upstanding family man but for one glorious week, he lets his new tank top tell the world he is also a Female Body Inspector.
How’s it feel to have your joke ganked for a t-shirt?
Having the joke become a Wildwood t-shirt is cathartic for me. In 2002, my friends and I got hammered and went on the Dracula’s Castle boat ride. We ended up rumbling with a bunch of the monsters that worked there—then a few months later, the castle burned down. That really dimmed my spirit for Wildwood. But now, I imagine a small army of stocky dudes named Nunzio are proudly allowing the tank top to showcase their jacked arms on the boardwalk, having the time of their lives, so that makes me feel good. I really owe a debt of gratitude to both perverts and Italians for helping me heal on my journey.
Speaking of tweets turned into t-shirts: McLovin is 40! On June 3 of this year, the age on the fake ID that Fogell (aka McLovin) acquired in the 2007 film Superbad turned 40! A bunch of people tweeted and wrote about it. This makes me feel good, as I am not 40 yet and I graduated high school way before Superbad came out.
The inspiration for this is an old shirt. It originally was not a cartoon; it was a woman rolling a blunt. It’s even for sale on Amazon as “Sexy Girl Rolling Blunt Men’s T-Shirt.” (You only see some of her face. Is she really sexy? Maybe.) That shirt was ubiquitous on the boardwalk a few years back. Now it’s all over the place again, this time in parody form. These cartoon parodies, where Cookie Monster or Pikachu or whoever roll and smoke a blunt, have existed before. But this year, they were even more ubiquitous than the original blunt-rolling woman. This is what happens when you simply ignore copyright: Complete innovation!
The trend of high-end streetwear knockoffs continued on the Wildwood boardwalk this summer. My favorite example is what I’m calling “Streetwear buddies.” Two characters from a cartoon—Dragon Ball Z, Rick and Morty, a weird Pokemon/Star Wars mashup—stand next to each other in hip streetwear outfits, usually drunk/stoned. I think it was originally a Rick and Morty pastiche—the Dragon Ball Z guys are a Mortyverse portal there. As to why Grogu (Baby Yoda) is hanging out with Pikachu? I dunno.
Rugrats was rebooted in May, and as a result there were a lot of Rugrats shirts on the boards this year. Sometimes it’s very simple. There were enough Rugrats shirts we actually got black Rugrats, Black Bart-style. You could write a dissertation on the racial politics involved in the alterations for the “Melanin” shirt.
This category of shirts expands every year. Popular ones this year include a Nike ripoff (the heart over the swoosh could pass for a real Nike design), Batdad and Batmom (“ass” is censored on the shirt) and a bunch of Mickey hands (some of which are explicitly Disney-themed, others intended to show that the wearer is a big-time pot smoker).
I didn’t think it was possible, but: The booty shorts are getting more explicit, somehow.
There was a limited amount of Trump merchandise on the boardwalk this year. “Hidin’ Biden” is a holdover from 2020—to note: it’s cute that the pillow is a MyPillow—and the “MISS ME YET?” t-shirt is so lazy! It’s just Trump’s head photoshopped onto George W. Bush’s; it’s in the style of a Shepard Fairey poster and has the slogan “How’s that hope change thing working out for you’ya?” What the hell is “you’ya”??? Otherwise, some Trump stuff popped up during a country music festival.
You might be asking: What about “Let’s Go Brandon”? Ah, see, here’s the rub: Biden’s popularity didn’t really start dropping until the withdrawal from Afghanistan. That’s when people started chanting “Fuck Joe Biden!” at sporting events, including the history-altering incident where fans chanted it after a victory by NASCAR driver Brandon Brown. An NBC Sports reporter suggested they were chanting “Let’s go Brandon!” But that was on October 2. Wildwood is basically closed by then. So “Let’s go Brandon!” will be a 2022 Wildwood boardwalk shirt. What a summer we’re in for.