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Smells Like Teen Art: Kids’ Reaction Art to Nirvana’s Classic Single

We asked young artists at the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy in Beaverton, OR to respond to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – and the results will surprise you
Mo D., Grade 9, created "Explosion of Nirvana" inspired by "the albums that Nirvana made."

I’d had the idea for kids’ reaction art to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for a few years. When I reconnected with old college pal Mark Brandau, an art teacher at the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy in Beaverton, OR, a suburb of Portland, this portfolio came to life. 

Mark once gifted me one of the most epic mixtapes of all time, with seamlessly flowing tracks ranging from Jonathan Richman to Luscious Jackson – so yes, he also knows music. 

This project, he says, piqued his curiosity. “I wasn’t sure how my students would react. Many of them are quite music savvy but thirty-plus years removed from the release of Nevermind, their experiences with the album and the music of Nirvana are very different [from] my own.”

It was Mark’s idea to set the size of the artwork to that of a vinyl record cover. Other than that, he says, the process was pretty open. “Some students even created directly on old album covers I provided. I also asked them not to just illustrate the song or the lyrics, but to try and create work that captured their own reaction/connection to the song even in more imagined or abstract ways.” The students were allowed to offer one or two lines to describe their process to accompany their artwork. Mark led a jury on the school’s side to which ten pieces would be chosen to be published in SPIN, based on those that best illustrate “how this song has transcended generations and is still relevant (even if it’s relevant for different reasons).”

For Mark and his students, the project provided a unique opportunity, and a means of showcasing their work to a widespread audience. “Personally (and professionally, I suppose), I feel that art is most powerful when it communicates beyond the artist and creates a shared experience between the artist and the audience,” Mark says. “Rarely do students at this level have the opportunity to make such connections beyond their immediate peers. While some students might find that intimidating, others were all-in from the first mention.”

We knew going in that some kids would already know the song, but regardless, individually and as a collection, their reactions are nothing short of profound. The young artists contemplated, as they wrote, the “essence of grunge music and its lasting impact on youth culture,” and “the inherent rejection of capitalist societal norms that the song is trying to convey.” 

There is nothing “stupid and contagious” about these kids. 

Hana T., Grade 11

“The Cafeteria”

(Gouache, acrylic paint pens, pencil, printout sticker on mixed media paper)

I was inspired by modern teen spirit; specifically, when I feel like a teen, hanging out with my friend over lunch. Music, school food, buses, phones, and cafeterias are all things teens deal with on a daily basis, so I combined them with the song’s rock/alternative vibe (reflected in character outfits and color palette).

Kaden B-S., Grade 9

“Bugs n’ Cigs”

(Acrylic on canvas)

“Bugs n’ Cigs” shows references to the dark color theme in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video and my own interpretations of the song.

Mo D., Grade 9

“Explosion of Nirvana”

(Canvas, brushes of different types, my hands, and acrylic paints)

This painting inspiration was the albums that Nirvana made. The symbols within it are all albums that personally I have enjoyed and inspired me in multiple ways.

Nolan V A., Grade 8


(Watercolor, graphite, marker, and colored pencil)

I listened to the song over and over again while drawing this and never got tired of it which probably explains how it came out. I even used inspiration from one of Kurt Cobain’s paintings and the album cover for the background!

Paige M., Grade 9

“They Smell Teen Spirit”

(Procreate on iPad)

I took the prompt of the artwork pretty literally; when I think of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I think of Teen Spirit. As for the drawing itself, many grunge bands used a lot of high contrast and grainy imagery for their album covers, and I wanted to pay homage to those elements in my artwork.

Ryan W-T., Grade 7

“Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit”

(Acrylic paint, colored pencils, marker)

This artwork was my attempt at representing the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This was me trying to communicate my interpretation of the song, the vibe it gives, as well as the general idea and drivers of today’s teen angst or “teen spirit.”

Sebastiana I., Grade 10

“Getting Past”

(Colored pencil & marker)

Inspired by “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” this artwork captures the essence of grunge music and its lasting impact on youth culture. It serves as a heartfelt tribute to Cobain’s legacy and the timeless relevance of Nirvana’s music.

Skylar G., Grade 9

“Lady Flying”

(Found record sleeve, gesso, paint pens, lining pen)

I grew up listening to ’80s and ’90s music with my dad in the car so Nirvana holds some fond memories for me. I was very excited to create this piece that encapsulates my teen spirit.

True A., Grade 12

“I’m So Goddamn Emo!”

(Pencil, paint pen, sharpie and ball point pen)

When I think of this song, I think of the development of Nirvana’s fan base and how differently they appreciate the song: from sincere and loyal fans that praised the band’s hit song, to nowadays a younger demographic of people that enjoy the song at a surface-level and misinterpret the meaning, while diminishing its depth. Most of all I wanted to focus in on the culture that currently surrounds the song and to me its a very cringe grunge, more focused on what people think the culture of the song is than the inherent rejection of capitalist societal norms that the song is trying to convey. If you want to see more of my art you can find me @menz.burn on instagram!

Vivi H., Grade 7


(Digital illustration)

This artwork is fans of Nirvana, they are enjoying the music and swaying to it. And the background is to represent their enjoyment and movement.