handprinted "Kilroy was here" t-shirt (1947)


“Coney Island, 1947” photo by Sid Grossman (look him up, awesome photographer!)

I was just checking out my buddy Jimmy’s blog over at defunk’d which features an incredible ebay find you must see- go ahead and check it out, i’ll wait- but it got me thinking about the utilitarian beauty of the handprinted t-shirt. I remembered this photo by Sid Grossman that I saw a few weeks ago. It stopped me in my tracks because I thought that handprinted t-shirts were an outgrowth of punk rather than at the very roots of nascent American teenage culture. I shall look deeper into this.
How perfect is it that this young lady took to adding the legendary post-WWII graffiti “Kilroy was here” to her t-shirt? The famous slogan is shrouded in mystery, but it somehow caught the imagination of a generation. “Kilroy was here” is akin to the modern practice of idiotically commenting “first!” to a blog entry or news story on the internet- there’s no point but there’s a certain thrill to getting there first and having everyone else who follows see that you have already staked claim to this turf. Supposedly, James Kilroy was a shipyard inspector in Quincy, MA, during World War II and would chalk “Kilroy was here” on every bulkhead he inspected. GIs were baffled by this ubiquitous slogan, but took to spreading this simple and mysterious image throughout the world. The joke is not so much what the phrase says, but where it would turn up. A perhaps apocryphal story claims that an outhouse was specially constructed for only the world leaders at Pottsdam. As Stalin emerged from christening the outhouse, he supposedly queried an aide, “Who is Kilroy?”

Not to be confused with:

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