They come to put their dead relatives and friends on a T-shirt.
A young woman clutches a photo of her murdered 16-year-old brother. He grins at the camera, his right hand clutching a gun. Three young men line up to pay homage to one of their friends, a “street soldier,” with his Facebook profile picture.
Here at Studio X, inside the U.S.A. Flea Market, miles away from South Beach in a gritty pocket of Liberty City, is where black Miami’s killed are memorialized. Pictures of the deceased are stamped onto plaques and necklace charms, but a majority of customers come to put a picture on a T-shirt.
For the bereaved who robe themselves in these memorial shirts, the act is a public expression of their loss. It is a ritual they turn to in their time of grief. It is a testimony of a life prematurely taken by violence in neighborhoods where these killings don’t always make the news cycle.
The Studio X booth, with its purpose emblazoned on a sign out front — “Home of the R.I.P. T-shirts” — is often the first stop before funeral arrangements. And long after the funeral is over, the grief-stricken return. They come on their lost loved one’s birthday and on the anniversary of the killing for more T-shirts to proclaim their sadness. Here, love is a memorial worn close to the heart and out in the street.
Ayleen Lopez, the soft-spoken graphic designer on duty, gently directs customers to a menu of images beneath plexiglass to use as a background for the photo of their loved ones.
“People do it because it’s their way of remembering someone they loved,” she said. “Not everyone understands it. In Miami, in the ’hood, this is how you show this person means something to me.”
Menu item CR-14 depicts a cross topped with a crown of thorns. CR-17 is a pair of hands clasped in prayer. G-13 is Miami’s skyline bordered by what looks like two AK-47 assault rifles on top and, along the bottom, a row of bullets.
Studio X is one of the better known memorial shirt-printing enterprises locally, but similar businesses dot strip malls and flea markets throughout South Florida. They are part of the urban background of inner cities across the country.
“It should be once in a blue moon, but every week it’s another body,” said Leonard Brown, who designed memorial shirts for 12 years at Studio X.
The killers and their victims whose likeness ends up on T-shirts are overwhelmingly young black men.
“When you look at mortality, if you’re a white female, white male or black female, the chief reason you will die before age 35 is mainly an automobile accident,” said Dr. Charles Hennekens, a Florida Atlantic University professor and physician. “But if you’re a black male, the chief reason you will die is homicide with a firearm.”
Hennekens calls it “the new American tragedy,” the disproportionate rate at which young black men are slain. In an article Hennekens co-authored in The American Journal of Medicine, he wrote that homicides of young black men is a national epidemic.
The perennial statistics of murdered black men spurred President Barack Obama to recently unveil “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative to intervene in the lives of at-risk boys of color before they interact with the criminal justice system either as a perpetrator or as a victim of violent crime.
The White House noted that “African-American and Hispanic young men are more than six times as likely to be victims of murder than their white peers — and account for almost half of the country's murder victims each year.”
Archivists of death
In Miami, the designers at Studio X serve as archivists of death. Copies of their shirt designs are cataloged in ordinary white three-ring binders to use as models for others. Thirty-five binders sit on the back shelves of the booth. The oldest is from 1994.
Nearly every surface of the booth is papered with pictures of the dead. Above one wall, a sign reads, “For those who lost their lives through senseless killings.”
Passersby stop to take it all in.
“I can see my friends that were killed in the early ’90s. Now, it’s my little brother’s friends getting killed,” said Bennie Thornton, who stopped by long enough to pay his respects to the faces he recognized on a recent afternoon.
Inside one of the binders, Thornton found a photo of his cousin Albert who was murdered in North Miami-Dade. The family got shirts made at Studio X.
Thornton, 37, grew up in Liberty City’s crime-ridden Pork ’n’ Beans projects, formally known as Liberty Square. As soon as he could, he got out.
“I didn’t want to end up on a T-shirt,” he said.
Pointing to a banner on Studio X’s wall, a collage of dead young black men, Thornton said, “I know all these boys. They grew up right around here.”
When a well-known “dope boy” — a drug dealer — is murdered, Studio X is overloaded with orders, said Brown, the graphic designer.
The drug dealers, minor cult figures in their neighborhoods, gain respect by playing the role of philanthropists, Brown explained. They pay a neighbor’s late rent, buy groceries for a struggling mother or give lunch money to school kids.
“When a big name in the ’hood gets killed, for two weeks straight that can be all of our business, people coming to get that shirt,” Brown said.
Words of grief
Lopez, 21, started designing Rest In Peace shirts four years ago. She says the process is routine.
First, she uploads the victim’s photo to a computer and places it against the customer’s chosen backdrop. Heartfelt words of remembrance are added: “Gone but not forgotten,” “We love you,” or “In thuggin memory.”
The customer approves the final product before Lopez prints her creation. Within minutes, she heat-presses the design onto a shirt.
It’s $17 for a design on the front, $22 for a design on both sides. The customers supply their own standard cotton tees — the color of choice is usually black or white.
Lopez said that although there are customers who come in to put a grandmother who died of natural causes on a shirt, or an uncle who died suddenly of a heart attack, the majority of the business comes from those left behind after a violent killing.
The memorial shirts have become modern mourning garb for the mostly young people who wear them to wakes and funerals in lieu of typical black suits. After the funeral, the shirts are worn to the grocery store, laundromat, gas station.
Amanda Brewer owns seven memorial T-shirts. Five depict friends or family members who were killed in Miami’s impoverished Overtown neighborhood.
“It’s like the ghetto’s obituary,” she said of her T-shirt collection.
One shirt is a tribute to her uncle and cousin — a father and son — killed 14 years apart on the streets of Overtown.
On the front of the white shirt is a picture of Brewer’s uncle, Jimmy Duncan, with white doves encircling his head. Family members believe he was killed for his flashy gold chains and bracelets. The year was 1989. He was 19 years old. When Duncan died, he left behind a 1-year-old son. That son, his namesake, is on the back of the same shirt. He was killed in 2003, just blocks from where his father was gunned down. Jimmy Duncan III was 15.
Last year, over the Labor Day weekend, another of Brewer’s cousins fell victim to the violence in Overtown. Demetrius Hyppolite, 26, was killed by gunfire, multiple bullets piercing his body. He is also on one of her T-shirts.
“This is my time to grieve. When I put it on, I’m saying, ‘Yes, they took my family.’ But you know what, they’re in a better place,” Brewer said. “They’re still with me because I wear their shirts.”
Miami Police Maj. Delrish Moss grew up in Overtown. He knows that too often, the faces on the shirts he sees are on his police department’s roster of homicide investigations.
“It’s almost like we’ve accepted violence, and gun violence in particular, as a way of life,” he said.
Many of the young men he comes across expect that they, too, will fall victim to the bloodshed in their communities, and that one day they will get their photos heat-pressed onto a shirt.
“You do a great deed for your country and they erect a statue. They commission a bust or a painting,” Moss said. “Well, for a lot of these kids, the frightening part is the only symbol of immortality for them might be one of these T-shirts.”
Miami rapper Desloc Piccalo helped popularize the memorial shirt trend with his popular hit “Picture on a T-shirt,” in the mid-1990s.
But these days, when he talks to his young fans in Miami’s inner cities, he tells them he doesn’t want them to end up on a T-shirt. He encourages them to join after-school programs, but he admits his words don’t hold as much sway as the pull of street life for young people who feel that they don’t have any other options.
“They start getting immune to it,” Piccalo said. “They’re like, ‘Man, three of my friends died this month, so it ain’t nothing. I can go tomorrow, too — I don’t care.’”
Wayne Rawlins, an anti-gang strategist for Miami-Dade County, said there is a sense of apathy when killings occur in poor minority neighborhoods. The victims are not all innocent — some are drug dealers, thieves, hustlers. They don’t fit the profile of people who would garner much sympathy, even if many are younger than 25.
Rawlins said the killings have become a cycle expected in areas where the poverty level is high.
“As long as the death stays in the box of these communities, it’s OK — let them kill themselves. But when it happens in Sandy Hook, it’s big news. It’s national news,” he said. “When it crosses the barrier to Coral Gables, now we have a problem, now we’re going to pay attention.”
And so in their own way, when family and friends wear their shirts, it is a public reminder that this horror happened.
At Studio X and other T-shirt-printing businesses with inner-city clientele, another type of shirt is slowly gaining popularity, the “Free” shirt for young men and women who land in jail or prison.
“When your homeboy gets locked up, you get a ‘Free so-and-so’ shirt. It don’t matter if he is guilty,” said Brown, who recently left his post in Liberty City to start a memorial shirt business in Broward.
A smaller menu beneath a plexiglass at Studio X advertises “Free” shirts. Customers can choose from jail bars, a judge’s gavel or handcuffs as options for backgrounds.
“I’d rather do the ‘free’ shirt,” Brown said. “A least they’re still alive. I don’t know who’s going to die next. I just wait for the next picture to come.”