March 1st, 2012
08:16 AM ET

RIP tees: In Murder City, a market for wearable memorials

Markets are telling. The best indicators of a region’s demands are the items it keeps in plentiful supply.

In New Orleans, residents demand ways to honor their slain loved ones. With a murder rate that has been tops in the nation for years, perhaps it’s no surprise that a number of custom T-shirt companies specialize in wearable memorials.

The city’s Times-Picayune newspaper wrote in 2004 that RIP tees were becoming as common as flowers at funerals, but filmmaker John Richie found more recently that, for many T-shirt shops, the shirts are a mainstay of their revenue.

Check out the's story on the violence plaguing New Orleans

Lawrence Elzy, owner of Exclusive Tees in the 7th Ward, told Richie during a documentary shoot that there are roughly 20 shops like his in a 3-square-mile area.

“If I’m too busy, my customer will go to another shop, and if they’re too busy, their customer will come here. There’s not a shortage,” he said.

When Elzy first opened, he wanted to focus on birthdays, family reunions, “things more of the living,” but he quickly realized it wasn’t a sound business plan.

“You can survive without doing Rest In Peace shirts, but your business will never grow - because of New Orleans.”

In five days in New Orleans, I saw about a dozen of these shirts. In the Calliope Projects, someone had put a pink RIP shirt on a post to remind passersby that Keira Holmes Gordon was gunned down last year just days before her 2nd birthday. A woman who lost all four of her brothers to gun violence arrived at an interview wearing a shirt bearing their likenesses.

At APEX Youth Center, Keith Singleton, 18, wore a hoodie memorializing his pal, Joseph “Joker” Elliott, who was slain in January. During a photo shoot a couple of days later, Justin Elliott wore a different shirt in honor of Joker, his cousin.

“It’s just basically to remember that person or to show that this was my friend, this was my loved one,” Elzy said during the documentary. “The day he died, the next morning you’re in the shop getting a shirt and you’ll get a shirt every day until that person is buried.”

Filmmaker John Richie discusses his film, "Shell Shocked," at his New Orleans home.

Today’s story on explains how violence in New Orleans isn’t like violence in other cities. Studies have found it is rarely gang-related, silent witnesses abound, killers often opt for the outdoors over the privacy of tucked-away structures and the city’s young people, usually in their teens or 20s, are the most common victims.

Richie interviewed Elzy as part of the documentary’s efforts to address the violence, as well as the innovative ways in which many residents are working to combat it.

At first, Richie gathered seven of the city’s youngsters and gave them cameras. He taught them to shoot and edit and asked them to discuss with their friends how the killings affected them.

“No matter what we were talking about,” Richie said, “it always came back to killing – very quickly.”

The plan to base the movie solely on the kids’ footage didn’t work. In a city where snitching can command a death sentence and expressing fear or emotions makes you prey in the streets, the kids clammed up on camera.

So Richie went with a more straightforward approach. “Shell Shocked” is in the editing phase as Richie’s Scrub Brush Productions scrounges up the funds for the final cut.

The movie, though incomplete, features crime scene footage alongside interviews with people from all walks of life talking about the depth of poverty in certain neighborhoods, the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the accessibility of guns and the importance of mentoring.

Several mothers who lost their sons to violence become emotional during their interviews, as does Elzy when he describes customers’ reactions when they come to pick up their RIP T-shirts.

Althea Phillips talks about her four slain sons, whose faces are on daughter Yvonne's shirt.

“Sometimes I get up and walk off because you have to watch parents and friends cry,” Elzy said. “You want to cry, too, but I just get up and walk off. Maybe I just go and use the bathroom sometimes or I go take a walk like I need some air or something. Some of them, I give them my number, tell them if you need someone to talk to, call me.”

Criminal defense attorney George Gates told CNN he wonders if the way New Orleans deals with death plays a role in young people’s perceptions of passing away. Along with memorial T-shirts and tattoos honoring loved ones, the city’s jazz funerals offer a “celebration of life” after the burial.

The brass band plays solemn dirges en route to the cemetery but puts on a more lively show of funk, jazz and Dixieland as mourners leave the burial grounds. The “second line” celebrates by dancing, stepping, flagging handkerchiefs and pumping umbrellas in honor of the person just laid to rest.

The New Orleans-raised Gates said he worries it may give young people a skewed perspective on dying.

“They don’t see death. … They see a celebration in death that that person never had in life,” he said. “They see a huge party and what they think about is that party when they die.”

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Filed under: Crime • Drug violence • Drugs • Economy • Justice • Louisiana • U.S.
soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. Patrick©

    @kat, if you think I am any of the "above named persons" you are sadly mistaken. The blogs show EST, so they may be sleeping only if they say where they allegedly live.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
  2. Patrick©

    @hamsta, then why didn't you come to Commanders Palace when I asked you too? My conscience is clear and I will tell you right to your face;

    March 2, 2012 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. Kat

    @patrick not talking about you, referring to hamsta/gung hoe

    March 2, 2012 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick©

      @phew, thank you Kat. Well @hamsta is around but not answering the pointed questions, as per usual.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
  4. Kat

    @patrick, still not answering the burning questions is he?? Makes it seem even more likely doesn't it??!!

    March 2, 2012 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
  5. Patrick©

    It certainly does @kat. Have you ever communicated with gung hoe? I am concerned because my daughter may have given her email to him.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:46 am | Report abuse |
  6. Kat

    @patrick, well yes! I don't think you should be too concerned, but lately I'm not too sure!!??

    March 2, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. Patrick©

    @Kat and @banasy, Bon soir to you both>These tired bones of mine need to sleep.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  8. banasy©

    Good night, Patrick.

    March 2, 2012 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
  9. KB

    Too bad no-one proof-read the t-shirt before printing "God's Angle".

    March 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. joe

    Don't feel sorry for these folks. If they really cared about each other they would pull together as a community. Govt can't fix the problems they have by continuing down the same path we have for 50 years. God made mirrors and lakes for a reason. Time this portion of society looks in either a mirror or lake to get a true reflection of what is the problem. As I often hear in their community is Just Keeping it Real!

    March 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • bp

      Comments like this make me think about why so many people are atheists...

      March 16, 2012 at 1:23 am | Report abuse |
  11. Daniel

    Sad and tacky at the same time: shirts read God's "angle" (sic)and Gone "to" (sic) Soon. These t-shirt vendors may be providing a service or they may just be preying on the survivors like unscrupulous funeral home operators.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. NoDoubt

    I went to University of New Orleans for a couple of years, and lived near the city for years before that. What I can say is, New Orleans never lost the "port city" feeling that it had to begin with. All sorts of people came through that city, and I believe you can feel it as soon as you walk through it. Its a heavy atmosphere of MANY years of crime, and nothing will ever make it any different. Its sad and cruel and depressed me to the point that I moved away and refuse to go back. As far as I'm concerned it should sink to the bottom of the ocean.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Teenage Liberal

    Different people grieve in different ways, and that's okay. What's important is that conservatives and liberals work together to find creative, sensible solutions to the benefit of the city.

    March 3, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • hilo, hawaii

      It's NOT OK, it's Jerry Springer moronic behavior -and a warped badge. Remember the 7 year old found in the dumpster a few months ago? Her negligent momma was sporting an RIP Tee the very next day. You see the mentality of the people by how they 'grieve' -following a trend. It's pathetic.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Stephen

    I live in Los Angeles but I love the people in New Orleans and although it is a difficult situation there I believe things can
    change. I run an organization called WOW and we do huge inner city outreaches in the poorest communities in our nation. I was watching the results of Hurricane Katrina and when I saw the faces of people I knew they needed more then help they needed HOPE. We have been going there ever year since the Hurricane doing outreaches called WOW JAMS.The strategy of a WOW JAM is simple: Reach the socially and financially depressed residents of the inner city by mobilizing local volunteers, businesses, faith-based and community organizations to deliver a block party complete with FREE barbecue, music, drama, games, prizes and a message of hope. The goal: to promote partnership, service, and commitment to our neighbors and neighborhoods. It is accomplished by loving people in practical ways like providing haircuts, repairing a child’s bicycle, rocking a baby to sleep, taking family photos, offering career counseling, and giving away groceries—all FREE of charge. The objective: bring hope to the least, the last, and the lost of our city. Over the last few years we have presented 28 JAMS with phenomenal results. Over 65,000 people have attended! Thousands of volunteers from the city as well from other states have served the community by repairing 380 bikes, taking 1,958 family photographs, counseling 814 people about jobs and careers, and handing out 8,534 bags of groceries to those in need and much more! Over 5,000 people have made decisions that will have long-term impact on their lives. We are returning to New Orleans in March 16th -25th. We expect 10,000 people to attend. Come on out and watch something amazing! learn more at

    March 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • hilo, hawaii

      Best of Luck with this endeavor.

      March 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. SMH

    For the record "Angle" is this case is correctly spelled, as the child's name was Keira Angle Holmes-Gordon.

    March 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
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