Go through any guy’s closet and you’ll find a handful of graphic tees. The best men’s graphic tees are more than a colorfully quick way to amp up an outfit. Throughout the years, men’s graphic tees have been utilized as a sociological tool signifying political or religious affiliation, club membership, economic strata (or as aspirational tools) and fandom. Your favorite band t-shirt can become a rare collectible and treasured possession, and many worthy causes use t-shirts as a fundraising tool.
Basically, a graphic tee is the fastest way to tell the world who you are (or want to be).
And in 2021, these t-shirts are back in a big way. You can find the best graphic t-shirts for men on runways, influencers’ Instagrams, and in countless closets around the world. So keep reading to find some of our favorite graphic t-shirts for men to rock this summer. First, we’re going to dive into the history of this men’s fashion staple.
A Brief History of Men’s Graphic Tees
Researchers at Skidmore College believe the first graphic tee to appear in TV or film was a costume worn in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy and crew are ushered into Emerald City’s spa, the Oz residents working on the Scarecrow wore tees with the word “Oz” on the front. The second time graphic tees for men made a big splash was in 1942. That’s when the cover of LIFE magazine showcased a member of the Air Corps Gunnery School wearing a fitted white tee. In the verbiage of the time, he looked like a straight hunk.
Through the years, graphic tees became promotional tools for radio stations, workwear uniforms, and theme park souvenirs. In the 70s, wearing a band’s concert tee was the epitome of cool, as they were only available at shows. Starting in the late 1970s, men’s graphic tees became political. The Sex Pistols and punk rockers in general wore graphic message tees from designers Katherine Hamnett or Vivienne Westwood. As the decades rolled on, graphic tees dropped out of popularity until, like many trendy items, they became a fashion staple once more. Fashion designers have taken men’s graphic tees to new heights with price tags ranging from the low $100s to a stratospherically priced $91,500 from Hermes. To be fair, that particular men’s tee is made from crocodile and chiffon.
How To Style a Men’s Graphic T-Shirt
Tossing on a graphic tee and jeans is a no-brainer. If you’re going to a family-friendly event or venue, double-check that the image and language on your shirt won’t freak out elderly Aunt Tilly or get you tossed from a venue.
You can also dress up a graphic print tee for men by slipping it on under a blazer. When pairing a tee with a blazer, either wear a graphic tee whose print is on the back or find a monochromatic printed tee (grey on grey, black on white, white or black on gray). A solid color or a subtle printed tee helps create a coordinated look rather than a “last-minute” style.
In practice, these shirts are really easy to style, which is one reason they’re so popular. The best graphic t-shirts make an instant fashion statement, and we’ve collected some of our favorite options for men below.
Out of Print The Handmaid’s Tale T-Shirt
BEST POLITICAL TEE
Sometimes the most impactful political statements are the simplest. Take this t-shirt from Out of Print, which features the cover of Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s as relevant as ever.
Ksubi Graphic Tee
Simple, stylish and actually clever — it’s everything a graphic t-shirt ought to be. It has an intentionally distressed look with a “Club of Lonely Hearts” design featuring playing card suits.
Parra Graphic Tee
BEST SUMMER TEE
There’s nothing more freeing than riding a bike with the air flowing through your hair. This upbeat t-shirt from Parra perfectly evokes that feeling, and the vibrant graphics make for an eye-catching upgrade to your wardrobe.
Pleasures Graphic Tee
BEST BAND TEE
Album t-shirts often just feature the album cover slapped onto the front of the shirt. This shirt from Pleasures actually interpolates design elements from New Order’s iconic Power, Corruption & Lies album onto the shirt in a balanced, thought-out way. There have been a lot of New Order t-shirts over the years, and this is one of the better ones.
Maison Kitsune Graphic Tee
Maison Kitsune is a lot of things at once — it’s a record label and fashion brand, it’s French and Japanese, all at the same time. This shirt features a simple but playful logo design on a soft ecru background.
Aloye Graphic Tee
There are plenty of graphic t-shirts for men out there, but few come to life quite like this one from Aloye. The shirt features panels of fabric sewn onto the front of the shirt, as opposed to a printed design. Worried about care? Don’t fret, it’s machine washable.
Saturdays Graphic Tee
This is the ideal graphic tee for the minimalists out there. It features the distinctive slash logo of streetwear label Saturdays New York City. Fans of the brand will immediately recognize it, while everyone else will just think it’s a cool t-shirt.
Parks Project Graphic Tee
Parks Project makes retro-inspired hats, accessories and of course, tees — all of which support America’s beautiful National parks. This shirt features a collage of designs representing Alaska’s numerous natural attractions.
Uniqlo Graphic Tee
Uniqlo linked up with iconic jazz label Blue Note on a line of tees inspired by some of their best albums. And as great as the music is, Blue Note is particularly beloved for the gorgeous album covers, like these abstract piano keys from the eponymous album from the Sonny Clark Trio. It features a vibrant design on the front and a plain back.
The Clash London Calling Tee
BEST OFFICIAL BAND T-SHIRT
“London Calling” was the band’s third album and also picked as the best 1980s album by Rolling Stone and the best 70s album by NME (it was released in the UK in December 1979, and in the US in 1980). Not only does it contain the hit title song, but there’s also “Lost in a Supermarket,” and “Train in Vain.” Those are both legendary songs, but the album cover has also graced one of the most best men’s graphic t-shirts of all time. Iconic.
Pop Funk NASA T
NASA’s always been cool, and their newest mission, the Perservence is possibly the coolest yet. The land rover and its drone (!) is on the ground scoping out Mars and sending back mind blowing photos of the red planet. Celebrate that mission and all the cool things NASA does with this logo tee.
Patagonia Flying Fish Organic Cotton T-Shirt
BEST SURF SHIRT
The history of the surfer graphic T-Shirt’s a bit hazy; both Hobie and Velzy have stated they each started the trend sometime in the 1950s. Surfer tees are as much as a summer staple as flip flops. Patagonia’s is made with organic cotton and in Fair Trade factories. The front has a small brand patch on front, and the back is emblazoned with the graphic. This tee also comes in black, white, and yellow.
Jurassic Park T-Shirt
BEST DINO & MOVIE-TIE IN
Show your love for dinosaurs and one of the best movies of all time in this cotton blend T-shirt. Both the T and the movie are modern classics. Ed Note: I own one and the design hasn’t faded after multiple washes.
I Want My MTV Tee
BEST RETRO TEE
Immortalized by Dire Straits, MTV was the channel to watch in the 80s. Their iconic logo has graced the shirts of countless teens over the years, but now it’s more of a symbol of Gen X and millennials than the modern teenage demographic. Still, in the pantheon of OG graphic t-shirts, this has to be one of the GOAT.
Goosebumps Graphic T-Shirt
BRINGING BACK THE 90s
You may have noticed a trend in this story — 1990s fashion is back. This black t-shirt sits at the intersection of two trends, the return of the best graphic t-shirts for men and 1990s nostalgia. Show off your love for R.L. Stine with this classic Goosebumps t-shirt.
Clueless Tie-Dye Tee
BEST TIE-DYE T-SHIRT
Because everything that’s old is new again, tie-dye t-shirts are suddenly cool now. If you want to combine tie-dye with another classic image from the 1990s, then rock this stylish throwback Clueless t-shirt.