When people like what they see on a t-shirt, they buy it. If enough people buy it, that thing — a painting, a face, a monster, a joke, a cat — appears on other t-shirts, too. It gets used, and abused, and modified in ways both creative and grotesque.
Call them themes. Call them memes. I’ve identified some classic t-shirt themes and sorted them into piles, with commentary. And I’d bet a dollar that you know most of them.