The Story of the Most Controversial Shirt in Rock History

How one "anarchic" design led to 22 years of arrests, bans and public outrage

"Twenty-two years, and still so much upset!" Cradle of Filth's Dani Filth says of his band's controversial "Jesus is a cunt" T-shirt. Credit: Getty

On February 17th, an unidentified woman stormed into an exhibition of T-shirts at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, and proceeded to black out the Perspex barrier covering one of the displays with spray paint. The subject of her ire? The most controversial T-shirt in rock history.

It's been 22 years since English extreme-metal band Cradle of Filth first printed up their infamous "Jesus is a cunt" shirt, yet it still continues to make headlines. This year's incident at the Canterbury Museum is just the latest in a long series of brushes with controversy for the T-shirt, which bears the image of a masturbating nun on the front with the phrase "Vestal masturbation," and the words "Jesus is a cunt" in unmistakably large lettering on the back.

The wearing of the shirt has resulted in numerous arrests and prosecutions over the past two decades, while politicians (and other self-appointed guardians of the public morality) of several countries have angrily denounced its existence. "Who would have thought?" laughs Cradle frontman Dani Filth. "Twenty-two years, and still so much upset!"

As with so many iconic rock & roll creations, the Cradle T-shirt essentially began as a lark. "It was all very silly, I suppose," Filth recalls. "It was 1993, and we were about to go on tour with [Norwegian black-metal band] Emperor. We had a different T-shirt at the time – it had a picture of my wife, who was all done up in black metal regalia, and it said 'The Black Goddess Rises' on it. We needed to get a new shirt done quickly for the tour; we'd already come up with the 'Vestal masturbation' image and phrase, but we still needed a back print for it."

During the brainstorming session for the shirt, someone – Filth says he doesn't remember who – uttered the immortal phrase, triggering howls of mirth from the band. "We all were laughing about it, like, 'Oh my god, that's so anarchic – can you imagine that on a T-shirt?' We looked at each other conspiratorially, like, 'Shall we?' And yeah, we did it. Even at the time, we thought, 'Well, this is pushing the boundaries a little bit.'"

The local T-shirt printers in the band's sleepy hometown of Hadleigh, Suffolk, certainly agreed. "My wife actually worked for a T-shirt printing company in the village where we were," Filth remembers, "and the guy who ran the shop flat refused it – 'No, I'm not printing that!' We ended up trawling around loads and loads of T-shirt printing places, and eventually found one in another village who kind of did it on the sly; it was literally a cash-in-hand, out-the-back door kind of thing. I remember distinctly going to pick it up, and it was all very covert; the guy was like, [whispers] 'Here's your T-shirts,' and then he gave us the screens as well, because he didn't want those hanging around. Yeah, it was quite funny!" 

As Cradle of Filth's popularity began to rise, so too did the popularity of the "Jesus" T-shirt – a 1999 Kerrang! profile of the band estimated that more than 25,000 of the shirts had been sold in the six years since its introduction. (Filth tells Rolling Stone he has no idea how many have been sold since then.) It was really only a matter of time before such an extreme expression rubbed somebody the wrong way; in 1996, a 29 year-old Cradle fan named Rob Kenyon was arrested in London for wearing the T-shirt. Found guilty of committing "Profane Representation under the 1839 Act" by the Bow Street Magistrates Court, Kenyon was fined 150 pounds. The band itself ran afoul of the law due to the T-shirt in May 1997, when Cradle's then-drummer Nicholas Barker was arrested for wearing it at the docks of Dover, England, while the band was waiting for a ferry to take them across the English Channel to the Netherlands, where they were due to perform at the Dynamo Open Air festival. Happily, Barker – who had initially been charged with creating a public disorder and resisting arrest – was released without further proceedings after only two hours in custody, and the band was able to make its gig. 

Since then, the "Jesus" shirt has managed to compile a fairly impressive rap sheet. In November 1997, police in Ocala, Florida, arrested 24-year-old record store clerk Andrew Love for wearing it in the parking lot of a local mall. A jury acquitted Love of charges that he'd violated the state's obscenity law, but the case caused the Catholic League of America (which termed the outcome a "victory for sickos" in the 1998 issue of their journal Catalyst) to rail against both the T-shirt and the band's "songs that are filled with references to Satan and devil worshipping."

In 2001, Alex Mosson, the then-Lord Provost of Glasgow, Scotland, campaigned to have the shirt removed from the city's Tower Records location, terming it "sick and offensive"; the store agreed to stop selling the shirt after being raided twice by Glasgow police. In 2004, Dale Wilson of Norwich, England, was arrested for wearing the shirt in public; he pleaded guilty to charges of "religiously aggravated offensive conduct," and was fined 150 pounds and ordered to "grow up" by the judge, who also ordered the T-shirt to be destroyed.

The next year, 19-year-old Adam Shepherd of Dorset, England, was arrested for wearing the shirt and charged under the country's then-new anti-hate laws, which ban people from displaying religiously insulting signs in public. Shepherd paid 40 pounds in court costs and did 80 hours of community service.

In 2007, Scottish shop owner Captain Daniel Moore had his store raided by police after he sold the "Jesus" T-shirt to an undercover officer. Moore, who was charged with selling obscene material aggravated by religious prejudice, maintained his innocence, and charges were later dropped. "I knew I was innocent all along," Moore told the press. "The T-shirt is band merchandise and my customers chose to order it. I told the guy that bought it that he shouldn't wear it on the street."

Filth actually shares Moore's view about wearing the shirt in public. "I'd have to be an idiot to think that the shirt wasn't offensive," he says. "It's a dangerous T-shirt to wear, full-stop. Personally, I wouldn't walk around in it now – I mean, I'm 41 years old! I did walk around in it back in the day, but people don't understand that there's a time and a place for this sort of thing. Going to a gig? No problem. But some of these people are all like, 'I don't understand, I was in a mall and got arrested for wearing it!' It's just poor judgment on their part, really."

In 2008, an Australian teenager was arrested and charged with offensive behavior for wearing the shirt, which was officially banned the same year in neighboring New Zealand by the country's office of the chief censor, which stated that, "The injury to the public good that is likely to be caused by the availability of this T-shirt originates from the manner in which it associates an aggressive and misogynistic meaning of the 'harsh, brutal and generally unacceptable' word cunt with Jesus Christ, and depicts an image of a chaste woman engaging in sexual activity."

The ban didn't completely eradicate the shirt from the country: In 2011, a New Zealand retailer was fined for stocking hooded and long-sleeve variations of the tee; and when the Canterbury Museum asked to be allowed to include it in its recent exhibition spanning a hundred years of T-shirt design, it was granted a special exemption by the chief censor, who stipulated that the garment must be displayed in an adults-only area of the exhibition that would include a warning of offensive content. The censor's decision provoked cries of outrage from a variety of citizens' and religious groups; museum director Anthony Wright defended the shirt's inclusion, arguing that it made perfect sense in the greater context of the show. "I'm sorry it's upset people," he told New Zealand's One News. "We didn't set out to upset people. We certainly have no intention of doing that – but it is part of the story." (The museum was able to quickly remove the spray paint from the display case following the February 17th incident, and the shirt remained part of the exhibition until it closed in May.) 

After all this time, Filth says, it doesn't really bother him when the shirt ignites (yet another) controversy. "It's more amusing to me, than anything. This whole thing that happened in New Zealand, it was so ironic. By doing what the woman did, she was just furthering the cause, really; she was drawing attention to it. She didn't want people to see it, so she covered it up; but by covering it up, she brought it to the eyes of the world."

Perhaps the most ironic banning of the T-shirt occurred in 2002 and 2003, when Cradle of Filth were informed that they were not allowed to sell it during any of their Ozzfest dates. "I know Sharon Osbourne wasn't that keen on it," Filth laughs, "but I think it was probably due more to the fact that it might have outstripped Ozzy's sales; I think that was more the truth of the matter. And that's the thing – people like it! I know people who have bought it, and they don't wear it, but they've got it – they're like, 'It's a piece of history!'"

Despite the attendant controversy, the shirt has also popped up in some unexpected places. In "Hell-A Woman," a 2007 episode of Californication, Becca (Madeleine Martin), the teenage daughter of Hank Moody (David Duchovny), tells her dad that she wore the shirt ("The one that says 'Jesus was a c-word' on the back") to a concert. In 2009, designer Ann-Sofie Back debuted a fashion line that included variations on the shirt's masturbating nun illustration. And Filth claims that he's seen photos of Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, lead singer of reformed Eighties Brit-funkers Curiosity Killed the Cat, wearing the shirt during a recent festival show in Edinburgh, Scotland. "He actually wore the shirt back-to-front, with the words emblazoned for all to see," Filth says. "It gave me a new degree of respect for him."

Filth also loves the oft-shared photo from England's Bloodstock festival that surfaced a couple of years ago. "It's got two kids sitting down on the field with a stage in the background, and one of 'em is wearing the 'Jesus' shirt. And there's Jesus – somebody's actually turned up as Jesus – standing there looking pissed off at him! It's perfect." He laughs.

Though Cradle of Filth has been enormously successful within their extreme metal niche – Hammer of the Witches, their 11th studio album, will be released this July – one could argue that their "Jesus" shirt has made a much bigger mark on the mainstream consciousness than their music. It's a point that Filth amiably concedes.

"Well, that may be true, yeah," he laughs. "That's something that should piss me off – but I suppose it's like Christopher Lee, who played Dracula, and who just died. He fought quite a lot the whole ideology of Dracula. He didn't want to be typecast; he wanted to be remembered as more than just another Dracula. But unfortunately, he was so good at it that it followed him to his deathbed. So I suppose it's a similar scenario, really, you know what I mean?"

Not that he thinks his band's legacy and staying power has been entirely based upon being pushing people's buttons. "Don't get me wrong," he says, "We're not a 'shock rock' band that does that sort of thing all the time; if anything, we've had as much hardship from people for being too Goth-ily poetic. There are some times where we get out of bed on the wrong side of the proverbial grave and piss people off – but that's just the way it goes, isn't it, when you're a bit of an extreme character, or a bit of an extreme band? I think if we kept doing that sort of thing, it would become very contrived."

Other Cradle of Filth T-shirts have skirted the bounds of taste, however. So why does Filth think the "Jesus" shirt has been so controversial (and so successful), as opposed to other Cradle T-shirt slogans like, say, "Fuck Your God"?

"Well, [cunt] is still the granddaddy of swear words, isn't it?" he muses. "It's like one further than throwing out a 'fuck'. But mostly, I think it's the subject matter. It's a very anarchic statement – not Satanic, anarchic. It wasn't really aimed at Jesus in particular; it was more the fact that it was rebellious and going against something. It could have been anyone, really: Elvis, or Hitler. . .

"When I actually do get dragged before the pearly gates," he continues, "I would like to defend myself on that one, and say, 'Well, to be fair, it could have been anyone. You're lucky we chose you!'"