On February 17th, 2015 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 over 20 years since English extreme-metal band Cradle of Filth first printed up their infamous “Jesus is a cunt” shirt in 1993, 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!”