On the South Side of Chicago and around the U.S., memorial T-shirts are a way to remember, to celebrate — and to indict.
CHICAGO — Quentin Harris lives in the Englewood neighborhood here, and each year he commissions designs by Big City Fashions as an instrumental part of the unending process of grieving his brother, Julian. When Julian was shot and killed, Mr. Harris was in prison, unable to attend the funeral. Now he wears a memorial shirt, a new one each year, for an annual celebration held in his brother’s honor.
This year, weather permitting, there would be a barbecue.
Mr. Harris worries that his nephew, who will get a singular customized shirt, is too young to remember his father otherwise. Another sibling, born since his brother’s death seven years ago, will know him only through this memorializing. “It feels like I’m giving him a second life,” Mr. Harris said. “Like he’ll never really be gone, as long as I can help it.”
Big City Fashions, near the intersection of East 75th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, is typical of the legion of boutique salons dotting Chicago’s South Side. The broad windows are barred. A chained bulldog barks out back. The shop, nestled on a block with a grocer and a florist, has called this corner home for a bit more than 15 years. “That’s about a generation,” Carl Virgin, the owner, said. “I’ve seen a generation come and go. You see them as babies, then they’re grown with kids of their own, dead buddies of their own.”
Mr. Virgin is bantamweight and possessed of a quiet demeanor that first reads as pensive. He has a full and jutting beard threaded with gray, the only aspect of his physical self that even hints at his 43 years. The bulk of his shop’s business — “At least, like, 90 percent,” according to Christian Ray, an employee and graffiti artist known as Arson — is commemorative T-shirts, or “R.I.P. tees.”
The standard commemorative T-shirt is a white crew neck that bears, in vibrant, idiosyncratic detail, the name and visage of the dead. These shirts are commissioned by mourners, typically to be worn at funerals or other memorial gatherings in the first days and weeks after a death. The afternoon sun doesn’t reach the furthest corners of the shop, where the design equipment lives and where Mr. Ray and Mr. Virgin work, along with Jeremy Carnegan, a graphic designer, and two men named Lamont (one goes by “Skee,” the other, “LA”). The technical implements of their craft are artificially lit, with Mr. Ray weaving in and out of the harsh fluorescence as he works.
The shop is part of a network of funerary proprietors between 75th and 79th Streets. Big City and its florist neighbor, along with a printer of funeral programs and the Leak and Sons Funeral Home, all black-owned, together ferry the bereaved through the process of mourning the newly dead. This is work that must be reconciled with the limitations of time and finance.
“Man, I’m a graffiti artist, a therapist, a financial adviser, all that,” Mr. Ray said. He became interested in airbrush design art as a teenager, when a teacher at Cregier High School handed him an airbrush gun during a mechanic class. He has now been an airbrush and graffiti artist for 22 years, splashing his work on different media, including cars, buildings and T-shirts.
“It’s a beautiful art, but it’s pretty morbid,” he said. Often, the T-shirts he designs are for the very young, frequently victims of gun violence. “I love airbrushing, I love graffiti, but I’d rather make shirts to celebrate a graduation or a wedding, or, hell, even a picture of somebody’s dog,” he said. “But it is what it is. It’s tough.”
When he started airbrush designs, in the early 1990s, the style was to present figures in dark, absurd cartoons, as popularized by the Shirt Kings, two graffiti artists from Queens. With creations worn by the likes of Jam Master Jay, LL Cool J and other East Coast heavyweights, the Shirt Kings rose to prominence and helped to embed custom graffiti-inspired artistry into hip-hop fashion.
The origins of the airbrushed T-shirt worn in memoriam are nebulous. It’s likely a derivation of the second line funeral processions of New Orleans. Ronald Barrett, a scholar of black American rituals of death, attributed the practice to a West African tradition in which mourners carried handkerchiefs, scarves and other ephemera bearing the names and faces of their dead.
Visual memorials peaked in the ’90s, with the deaths of hip-hop superstars inspiring a deluge of murals and public graffiti art, especially within the cities they were associated with. But as municipal sanctions began to limit public graffiti — a Chicago ordinance prohibiting the sale of spray paint was passed in 1992 and affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1995 — the T-shirt was available as a miniature, and more personal, canvas.
In the early 2000s, the death of Aaliyah, followed by Lisa Lopes (known as Left Eye) and Jam Master Jay in quick succession, heralded a mini pop-culture renaissance of airbrushed designs worn as homage. Those designs seemed motivated by the challenges of hyperrealism, 100 percent airbrushed representations that, at first glance, seemed more photographic than painterly. It was around this time, in 2002, that Mr. Virgin, who opened the shop with his uncle, now deceased, met Mr. Ray.
Over the years, the cut of the shirt has shrunk. The 100 percent cotton extra-tall tees of yore proved not ideal for airbrushing. The natural fibers hold but don’t really absorb the paint, with the material remaining on the surface of the shirt in a way that leaves it prone to cracking and fading. Mr. Ray prefers lighter polyester blends, not tubular, with a crisp side seam to guide and bifurcate the shirt’s front and back.
Often, design sessions run into the night. Each shirt is a hybridized creation; Big City uses a combination of spray paint, sublimation (direct-to-garment printing), dyeing and screen printing. Heaven, and its symbolics, and the jagged Chicago skyline are most-requested motifs, and they are rendered with an almost rococo decadence. The scenes sprawl out behind the central photograph for a surrealist, multidimensional effect. On one shirt, the John Hancock building is interpreted with such precision that its famous x-bracing steel beams are visible.
Mr. Carnegan, Big City’s graphic designer, believes that the airbrushed design tribute is nearing an explosion. He said that the practice will go national and mainstream, “in like 2 or 3 years.” He is pessimistic about the implications of this for Big City. “They’ll be in H&M maybe, or Zara. Somewhere where people can get them cheap and quick,” he said.
The resurgence of a variety of kitschy ’90s nostalgia is to blame. In early 2015, Drake, perennial soft boy nostalgist, posted at least one photo on Instagram of himself wearing a shirt featuring an airbrushed portrait of Selena Quintanilla.
In February 2016, the commemorative tee went high fashion, or at least aspired to, when it was worn, and briefly sold, by Kanye West after the joint presentation of his Yeezy Season 3 collection and “The Life of Pablo” album. The stone-colored tee features his mother, Donda West, airbrushed back to life on its front. The shirt’s back is a smiling Robert Kardashian, Mr. West’s wife’s dead father. “In loving Memory” is wreathed above their heads. The airbrushed T-shirt, long consigned to the twin bastions of leisured Americana — malls and West Coast boardwalks — was “back.”
One of the perils of mourning in a cultural moment largely choreographed by social media is the slip into pageantry, with all the attendant competitiveness. “Some of these kids, man, it’s scary,” Mr. Ray said. “They get T-shirts, dog tags, all types of memorabilia, their rooms and lockers look like shrines. It’s like, I question whether that’s healthy.”
There is also the hazard of conferring affection for a person onto an object, something that is ephemeral; threads will unravel, paint will fade. Despite their own life spans, the shirts also function as a refutation of the supposed anonymity of gun violence. That number — of victims — is often deployed with a rote disregard, especially in relation to Chicago. The shirts serve as a declaration of the singularity of death as well as that of grief.
In 2002, Karla F C Holloway, a professor at Duke University, wrote, of black “commemorative conduct”: “Our daily lives were so persistently interrupted by the specters of death that we worked this experience into the culture’s iconography.” She suggests that the open-coffin funeral and the street corner memorial point to a type of mourning, which was, out of necessity, constant and protracted.
These practices, like memorial T-shirts, serve multiple aims. They are a memorial to both the deceased and to the ways they died. And all of these practices function as an indictment, where the law has provided none.
In 2014, Lesley McSpadden — the mother of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was killed by the police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. — was photographed on the weekend of her son’s funeral in a memorial T-shirt bearing her son’s visage, in his graduation cap and gown, next to her own. The photograph of her on the shirt is from soon after his death, and her face is wrinkled in sorrow and horror. The words “He Was Special 2 Me” are emblazoned across the shirt in rubescent detail.
In a 2015 article about black mourning in The New York Times Magazine, Claudia Rankine wrote that the images featuring Michael Brown lying dead on the asphalt (a tableau that would later be recreated) were just as likely to serve as a “spectacle for white pornography” as they were to incite any sort of national mourning. Ms. McSpadden’s shirt was a counter to such images of her son. It featured him alive and stately in his graduation blue and gold. It proclaimed that his death and her grief did matter, where, for some, his life certainly had not.