It was an otherwise quiet weekend in Dayton, Ohio, when Todd Smedley caught a glance at Lois Oglesby’s Facebook page. Years before, he’d been in touch with the 27-year-old mother of two when she asked about a job opening at Smedley’s clothing company, T-Shirt Kings, which specializes in “Rest in Peace” T-shirts honoring those who die too soon.
On Sunday, the posts on Oglesby’s Facebook feed turned dark, Smedley said, as family and friends began posting “RIP. ”
Within days of a mass shooting in Dayton that left nine dead, Smedley had his latest commission: a RIP T-shirt designed for Oglesby’s family. The final creation included three photos of Oglesby, a pair of wings, two doves, a staircase leading to heaven, and, with a nod to her nickname, the words “We love you Nae Nae 4 Ever.”
Across the country, RIP shirts have become a somber material extension of the nation’s social epidemics: inner-city gun violence, mass shootings, drug overdoses. These custom shirts, once commonly thought as corporate swag or something you might get at the beach, have transformed into something much more resonant, say T-shirt makers and their customers.
The T-shirts give faces and names to victims whose deaths might otherwise slip into an anonymous pile of statistics. T-shirt makers say they get requests for all sorts of situations but that the T-shirts are most common in communities of color that face disproportionate levels of gun violence. Parents don the shirts at crime scenes and vigils. Friends frame the shirts to mount on their walls or fold them gently into drawers for safekeeping.
But this slice of the retail world is a complicated one. Some worry that the shirts profit off grief and death. But the designers also know that each shirt represents another life cut short — one that can’t be summarized on the front of a cotton T-shirt.
“Unfortunately, it’s a big business,” said LeAndrew Brown, a clothing designer in the Washington area who receives at least one RIP shirt order each day. “I get so many stories. ”
‘More than just a shirt’
Some scholars trace the shirts’ origins to the late 1980s and early 1990s, although there are no estimates of how much revenue the shirts generate each year. Even so, RIP shirts are so common that they have emerged as a “cottage industry” within the retail world, said Katie Kavanagh O’Neill, an independent researcher who has studied RIP T-shirts in Baltimore.
When the shirts surfaced in the media about 20 years ago, sellers said they were crucial for a growing T-shirt business, O’Neill found. One New Orleans shop owner told the Associated Press in 1998 that he drew 90 percent of his business from “dead man shirts” printed with photographs of victims who were usually young, poor and black.
“You can survive without doing Rest In Peace shirts, but your business will never grow,” another seller in New Orleans’s 7th Ward said in 2012.
The shirts gradually took hold in popular culture, in part after rapper Master P mentioned RIP shirts in his 1997 song, “Is There a Heaven 4 a Gangsta.” The murder of hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur in 1996 also inspired designs nationwide.
A customized design can sell for $20 or $25. Shirts can be printed quickly and in vibrant color, often with photographs surrounded by angel wings or a halo. Sometimes they’re adorned with nicknames, birth dates and simple messages such as “Gone but not Forgotten” or “Rest in Power. ”
William “Surf” Ryals has been airbrushing for 32 years and founded his company, TB Customs, in 2004. His murals honoring victims of violent crimes dot the streets of Chicago. The mantel in his old shop turned into a memorial of sorts for friends he’s lost.
Ryals said that as RIP shirts have become more common, he worries that they’ve lost much of their flair. He takes pride in carefully airbrushing a dove or a smiling face. A full tribute, he says, isn’t the same as settling for a simple design or churning out mass-produced logos.
“People have stories. That’s the effect of the RIP shirts,” Ryals said. “When they’re gone, they’re gone. But it’s more than just a shirt. ”
But beyond their style, the shirts are also calls to action. After the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, protesters wore shirts printed with a black-and-white image of Martin in a hoodie, staring directly into the camera. When Eric Garner died in a struggle with New York police in 2014, marchers wore shirts printed with his final pleading words, “I can’t breathe.” And after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014, people memorialized him with shirts that read “Hands up, don’t shoot. ”
“It’s about speaking out against injustices and circumstances that are causing these incidents to happen,” said Robin Brooks, an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
But the shirts can be controversial, especially when produced en masse. Brooks said some RIP clothing will sell online for much more than what community-based vendors charge — upward of $30 or so — and often with little information about the seller.
“You don’t always know where the money is going,” Brooks said.
“Are these people associated with helping the fight against injustices, or are these people trying to just build their business?” she asked.
It’s even a conflict for a small-business owner like LeAndrew Brown. After rapper Nipsey Hussle was killed in a shooting in March in Los Angeles, Brown got a slew of orders leading up to a D.C.-area vigil. Brown said he printed four shirts bearing Hussle’s face before he realized that “there are people profiting off [Hussle’s] death.”
He eventually turned away eight people with similar orders, asking them, “If he was your family member, would you want me to profit off that?”
‘Somebody here has to do it’
Despite the daily orders, Brown doesn’t “want people to say he’s the best at tribute shirts.” The orders make up roughly a quarter of his business — but he’s uncomfortable with the reality that, in a way, he’s profiting off a community’s constant grief.
He’s never posted about them for his company’s nearly 2,000 Instagram followers. From his colorful shop at a mall in suburban Maryland, Brown prefers to focus on designs for celebrities, athletes, family reunions and birthday parties. Customers often find out about his RIP designs through word of mouth.
“Somebody here has to do it,” Brown said. “I wish there was a different way to go about it. I would never have imagined I’d be here for this.”
Smedley’s approach is a bit different. He founded T-Shirt Kings in Dayton in 2005, and markets his company as the world’s destination for RIP shirts. His website features dozens of designs with photos, angel wings and messages such as “Rest in heaven” and “My daddy was so amazing.” Smedley remembered one family that came in for a RIP shirt for their son — only to have the father shot at his son’s vigil.
“A lot of times, people put the ‘sunrise and sunset’ date on there and you start seeing it getting younger and younger,” Smedley said. “Now we’re edging into people who were born in the 2000s. It used to be people born in the 1990s.”
The shirts sometimes carry a stigma associated with gangs or the drug trade, O’Neill said, which can push sellers to operate underground. But Smedley said he sees his job as “speaking up for the good things” people did — not just focusing on the circumstances of their death.
He called the shirts “some type of therapy. ”
“They were still loved,” Smedley said. “I just help families narrate that story. ”