Wrestling moves fast. By the time I finish writing this paragraph, there will be a new trending phrase on Twitter based off of a single throw-away line in a promo. By the time you read it, someone will be in the front row of AEW Dynamite wearing a shirt with that phrase on it. By the time the check clears for this article, that shirt will be forgotten in the back of their closet. To have a lasting impact, especially in the world of wrestling merchandise, is a rare thing. That is why, as I reflect back at the last ten years of wrestling, there is only one shirt I want to talk about. I don’t even need to tell you which shirt that is, I don’t even need to show it to you. Hell, you probably guessed it before even clicking onto this article. I am of course talking about:
If we are talking about the last ten years of wrestling, there is one shirt that has dominated the landscape. The “Bullet Club Bone Soldier” design is so saturated into the world of wrestling that even the crudest interpretations are instantly recognizable. If you see three people all wearing some variation, you can be sure there is a ring set up nearby. For better or for worse, stenciled letters with a skull and crossed guns is the most iconic wrestling image from the 2010s.
The real magic of this design is how packed it is with cool aesthetics in such a simple presentation. Even if you don’t like every component, there is a little something for everyone here.
Skulls? Undeniably cool, a reminder of our limited time on this planet, at once both a humbling symbol of self reflection, and a threat to those who would oppose us, for they too can be rendered into bones and dust.
Guns? Another surefire win. They are loud declarations of authority. Idealized they are a way of saying that nobody can stop you from achieving your goals, the power over life and death molded to fit our hands. But it is not just any gun that the bone soldier carries, it is the Avtomat Kalashnikova. The AK-47’s efficiency, reliability, ease of use, and affordability has led it to be instantly recognizable as a weapon of guerrilla forces the world over. This shirt is able to communicate that Bullet Club doesn’t play by conventional rules and cannot be stamped out no matter how much the powers that be wish it. It is the perfect weapon for Bullet Club, who sells itself as the eternal underdog pushed past the breaking point and forced to use dirty tactics to survive in a world that forgot them.
Enveloping all these loaded symbols are stenciled letters and chevrons. Bullet Club is not just a loose gathering of ideologies, they are a structured force, a military sans frontiers. When you wear the shirt, you belong to something much greater than yourself. High schoolers are drawn to Bullet Club for the same reasons they are drawn to military recruiters— they are offered a place where they are told they belong and can help shape the world. Just put on the uniform.
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From a design standpoint alone, it is worthy of consideration as “shirt of the decade,” but what seals it for me is the way the Bone Soldier design has managed to reflect wrestling culture back on itself and take on so many different meanings since its inception.
When it first launched, the demand was supposedly so high that the NJPW servers crashed (according to Karl Anderson in a questionably kayfabe interview on Steve Austin’s podcast). The Bone Soldier was exactly what it set out to be: cool as shit. For a western audience, those early days turned it into a status symbol. Not only did wearing one look sick as fuck, it also meant the wearer was knowledgeable of a wider world of sports entertainment and enjoyed something cooler than the big American federations had been in years.
As with all things in professional wrestling, once it’s proven to be both cool and make money, the imitators descend. Everyone with access to design software was making an imitation. Did you team up with BC members for a single night? Have a shirt!
Got a podcast that talks about wrestling? Have a shirt!
Did you leave New Japan for greener pastures? Marketing will absolutely get you a shirt to keep that train rolling!
This oversaturation is what led to the death of the Cool Bullet Club Era, and the birth of the Corny Bullet Club Era. Once the design was no longer unique and Bullet Club itself began catering to the smart mark fanbase, the meaning changed entirely.
The cool crowd was too self selecting, and folks began to use the term “Bullet Club Shirt” as shorthand for the loud and abrasive fans that drive so many away from seeing wrestling live. Bullet Club Shirts would chant the same 3-5 cheers to derail shows, reveled in stolen 90s gimmicks, and log on to post screeds about what makes someone a “real” fan. The culture had changed and the former cool kids were now, well…
People were joking that the first njpw usa show was going to be mostly bullet club fans, but I still went and saw one of them standing in the middle of the hallway do the kenny omega taunt at a girl with a bullet club shirt and then say "bullet babe detected".
— watersand (@thewoterman) August 27, 2018
As powerful a blow as the “bullet babe detected” tweet was, the story of the Bone Soldier shirt didn’t end there. NJPW pushed harder into the American market and made a deal that would spark an entire new wave of sincere coolness by selling the Bone Soldier in that bastion of what made so many people like myself who they are today: Hot Topic.
Even if you weren’t into wrestling, the skull and crossed guns design is the bread and butter of mall goths everywhere. With the original symbolism back for a new generation, it instantly became Hot Topic’s number one best selling shirt. The corniness of the previous few years was being ousted in kayfabe and the fandom. In the wider culture of 2018, irony was dying, people yearned for sincerity, and the Bone Soldier was there to tap into that teenage angst that helps us all figure out what “cool” means. Guns ARE cool, skulls ARE cool, wrestling IS cool, you don’t need to cover it metatextual meaning to appreciate that! Step into the Hot Topic and let the real you step out.
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Wrestling moves fast. This time last year, AEW hadn’t counted a single pinfall. Now it feels indispensable. Catchphrases come and go as fast as they can be read into a camera and uploaded to a direct-to-print t-shirt site. But to nail a design so strongly that it doesn’t need to change for the greater part of a decade, that is something truly worth recognition. I don’t believe it is a stretch to put the Bone Soldier shirt amongst such titans as the nWo logo or Austin 3:16. It has a lasting impact that will be referenced and parodied for the foreseeable future. It already has outlasted the amount of time the nWo existed within WCW. It is fast approaching outlasting the Stone Cold Steve Austin run. Other shirts may be better, other factions may be better, but looking back at 2010-2019, it would be a lie to say any other piece of wrestling merch had come even close to what the Bone Soldier shirt has achieved, and that is why I have to award it “Merch of the Decade.”
One addendum to all of that— I have done the legwork on trying to find the original designer of the Bone Soldier logo, and the truth is, nobody knows. Rumors are as close as we get to the truth. That sucks. It sucks that someone can make something that revolutionized an entire field of work and we don’t know who they are. I hope they received good royalties from NJPW, but the wrestling biz doesn’t have the best track record where that’s concerned. I want to see what other work they have done without being tied to a corporation, hear what drives them as an artist, or even just to thank them for something that means so much to me as a writer focused on wrestling merchandise. But I can’t, and I probably never will be able to. So, if you leave this article with anything, I want that to be: please credit artists for their work.