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In D.C., death wears a T-shirt.
Phillip Lee got the phone call at midnight last April. His firstborn son, 21-year-old Phillip “Lil Phil” Cunningham, had been in a massive motorcycle accident at the corner of Irving Street and Michigan Avenue NW, and had died several hours later on the operating table at Washington Hospital Center.
Lee got dressed and went to Cunningham’s mother’s house, at 18th and Otis Streets NE, where neighborhood kids commiserated with him on the front lawn. He made calls to relatives, started work on funeral arrangements, and later bought Lil Phil his first suit—olive green, with a cream crewneck sweater. Lee did all the things you are supposed to do when your son dies at 21.
Lee also spent part of that first day engaged in a ritual that felt a little less ordinary—planning the memorial T-shirts. “‘I know you going to make T-shirts,’” Lee remembers his son’s friends telling him. “That was from Day One….A lot of kids expected it. I thought, Why not? It would be the last thing I could do for him except bury him. Like a tribute to him.”
What Cunningham’s young friends knew—and what Lee, 42, found out—is that cotton has become part of the fabric of grieving in D.C. and other urban areas. Memorial shirts still represent a fraction of the local T-shirt-printing industry, anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent. But most makers say that within the past two years, “We miss you” shirts have become a significant part of their business. Along with family reunions, office softball leagues, and block parties, there’s death. Kids aren’t just wearing the cotton epitaphs of icons like Tupac and Biggie anymore; they’re also wearing C.J. from down the block.
Within 24 hours of his son’s death, Lee and his family were hunting for the perfect photo and the perfect phrase to put on the perfect shirt. They wanted something that summed up Cunningham’s life—or at least distilled his chill vibe. After much debate, Lee headed down to the Human Billboard Inc., a T-shirt outfit located along the rows of warehouses by the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.
At the funeral, every pew was filled with Lil Phil. All in all, there were four different styles made, adding up to 600 shirts given away. The demand was so high, Lee says, that at one point a few patrons tried to sell them. Most of the shirts are now gone—a feat that makes Lee proud. A year later, an outer constellation of friends and relatives still ask if he has any left. “A lot of people still didn’t get one,” Lee says. “My nephew’s girlfriend [keeps] calling me for a T-shirt.”
Michael Banner does with ink machines, shirt presses, and silk screens what more traditional end-time entrepreneurs do with embalming fluid and makeup. Standing in his cluttered warehouse under a flock of multi-dyed silk screens, which hang from metal clamps like peacock feathers, Banner holds forth on his wearables. T-shirts, he explains, have evolved. And death has become just another stage in the history of the popular shirt—from Nike to Lil Phil.
The co-owner of the Human Billboard, Banner says modern T-shirt mania started with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. The movie was the T’s coming-out party—what was once considered mere underwear now spelled sex appeal. Soon came “talking T-shirts” or “walking billboards”; corporate logos and hip slang vied for brand recognition on your chest.
“T-shirts are still evolving, to a direct tie-in to your state of mind,” Banner says. Memorial shirts are an extension of this philosophy.
But the boom in memorial shirts has as much to do with new technology as it does with the mind-set of contemporary mourners. All you need is a scanner or color copier and some thermal paper, and you can turn a loved one into an iron-on. Banner says he can crank out 75 shirts an hour by using the heat-transfer method. His charges work out to about $6 a shirt.
For Banner, the most stressful part is making sure the name of the deceased is spelled correctly. He has more staffers detailed to name-checking—four—than to actually creating the shirt. Banner says he tries not to take names over the phone, insisting that family members fax their requests. He then will run a test print before completing the order.
“The person is already in grief. Then you don’t spell their name right—aw, man, shh—you adding to their grief,” Banner says. “That is very important.” Banner has garbled only one name, but that was enough.
Preparing a T-shirt is a lot like preparing a body. You want to make sure that the person looks good, and you want to make sure that he or she looks the way you remember. When Lee came into Banner’s shop last April, his photo search had been exhaustive. How to distill his son’s life? A graduate of McKinley Tech; an avid reader who fell deep for Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois; a hard worker who had dreams of becoming a computer technician, held down a decent job at Murry’s, spent most of his downtime under the hood of a cinnamon-red 1977 Firebird, and occupied most mornings eating breakfast with his father at Deli City on Bladensburg Road NE?
Lee wanted an up-to-date photo. Until very recently, Cunningham had worn his hair in cornrows. Lee wanted him in cornrows. Unfortunately, all the available cornrow pictures were crowded with friends or showed his son only in profile. So Lee decided to have an artist draw a composite of his son. The resulting shirt shows a black-outlined sketch of Cunningham bordered by a ribbon with the years of his birth and death, plus two laurel branches that resemble the decorations on a medal he once won for kids’ basketball. Above his head is a quote from Naughty by Nature that commemorates one of Cunningham’s favorite rappers, Tupac Shakur: “We will mourn ya…’til we join ya!”
Then, a few days after the funeral, Lee found a disposable camera in the back seat of an uncle’s El Dorado. The camera contained the last photo taken of his son. It showed him sitting in the Caddy, staring off into the distance, looking content. Lee used the photo for a second round of shirts. The second shirt doesn’t sum up a life so much as what Cunningham’s friends describe as his laid-back mood. Lee may describe Lil Phil as a go-getter, a guy with steady jobs and a high school diploma, but he wasn’t a shark in business, at least not yet. The photo—like the ones that made it onto still other shirts—conjures the feeling that Cunningham was still just a kid, content to cruise in his uncle’s Caddy, chill in a park, smile big for the camera.
Gary Laderman, an Emory University professor of American religions who has researched mourning rituals, says memorial T-shirts represent a changing culture where death, like much of life, has been informalized. Just as Oprah has supplanted Billy Graham as America’s favorite preacher, he says, rituals in death have become more personal than just filling pews and writing the five-minute eulogy.
T-shirts, like cyber-memorials and quilts, are a more democratic way of mourning. “It’s a really individual effort to grapple with the tragedy of premature death,” Laderman says. “These shirts become a living artifact that keeps the deceased in mind, in public view. People are taking rituals and creating symbols on their own.”
Dana Cable, a Hood College professor of psychology who focuses on the study of death and dying, says the T-shirts make people pay attention to the loss of a loved one. “Grievers are often afraid that people will forget the person,” he says. “If I’m wearing the picture, other people will have to remember….The picture is right there in front of me, or the name is right there in front of me.”
That fear of forgetting may be strongest in communities where premature death occurs most frequently. The shirts, makers say, predominantly feature pictures of young black males. Mostly the pictures are of the deceased against a blank wall, staring blankly at the camera. There are few action shots. One T-shirt outfit, Unitees, located a few blocks from the Human Billboard’s warehouse, designs memorial shirts that include African symbols tied to grieving.
But mostly the shirts consist of an enlarged photo and a short, intimate phrase similar to what you’d write in the back of a high school yearbook. At the bottom of one of Cunningham’s memorial shirts is a catch phrase he’d say to his buddies: “You know you my dogg.”
Marcus “Spark” Willis, a T-shirt maker who made two versions of Cunningham’s memorial shirt, says the shirts have become an expected part of the grieving process in African-American communities. “In the white community, you don’t die—you basically don’t die,” he says. “Youth out here are high risk.”
Indeed, the one thing that seems to comfort Lee is the fact that his son didn’t die at the hands of another, that the death was as uncomplicated as losing control of a motorcycle. No one else was involved. In a sick way, Cunningham’s death was clean and pure: broken bones that gave way to heavy internal bleeding that couldn’t be sewn up. And Lee prides himself on the fact that Cunningham left life with a lot of friends.
Many of those friends still wear Cunningham’s image on their chests. “I still see people wearing the T-shirt today,” Lee says. “It keeps a smile on my face to know that he was well-liked. I [lost] a son but gained a lot of friends.”
In the past year, Cunningham’s memorial shirt has shared drawer space with at least 11 other shirts from his old neighborhood—including one for a victim of last month’s notorious shooting of Wilson High School students. Cunningham’s cousin Nathaniel Wolfe has Cunningham’s shirt and the shirt of his best friend, Travado Coates. The Coates shirt shows the deceased smiling from a booth at Phillips Flagship restaurant, holding up a raw oyster. Wolfe says it fits Coates’ jokester personality.
Coates was gunned down by police less than a block from Lee’s old family home in Brookland. According to a Washington Post report on the shooting, police said Coates came after two officers with a pair of large knives. Wolfe says family members dispute this account and are in the process of suing the police department.
A few blocks down Rhode Island Avenue NE, Willis has three memorial shirts in his personal wardrobe—for Cunningham, neighborhood activist Amanda Wood, and “Corny” Whitlock.
Cunningham is buried in Fort Lincoln, not far from his old neighborhood. Lee says that regardless of the T-shirts, friends and family rarely even go to the site except for him, and sometimes Cunningham’s stepbrother. There are moments when Lee says a prayer for his son in his Chevy Suburban as he drives home from visiting relatives; other times, he’ll get out and visit the grave.
Lee’s new job, though, can’t help but keep the memory alive. He says he spent so much time around the Human Billboard after Cunningham’s death that he wound up working there as a sales manager after leaving his job as an electrician at PEPCO. Even so, almost a year after the death, Lee can’t bring himself to put on his son’s memorial shirt. “Me and him knew what we had,” he says, sinking into the words. “I’m not going to forget.” CP