Memorial T-Shirts Create a Little Justice, a Tiny Peace
By JASMINE SANDERS
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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.