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. banasy©

    How very sad that there is a need for a market like this....

    March 1, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |

    Sad indeed. But not surprising. I mean come on, only minorities are lame enough to waste money on garbage like this as well as those window stickers on the back of cars. Although, I do give props to the "man" who capitalized on this. He is raking in the dough now. Really, I understand your lose. Get over it and move on with your life. I guess the old business syaing is true: "There's a sucker born everyday!"

    March 1, 2012 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • justathought

      Please, don’t call it “garbage”. To some it may not not be ethical, but it is the way some want to express their sentiments, and that is OK.
      I for one, will not wear a tee shirt that has any written message on it, although I’ve thought of a few messages; one being on a tee to be worn by a female; on the front, “ADVERTISING SPACE AVAILABLE”
      I saw something one time on the back of some shorts being worn by a teen girl that read; “DON’T WORRY, IT’S OK”

      March 1, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  3. P.T. BARNUM

    "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute"

    March 1, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |

      PEDO-BEAR approves this quote. 🙂

      March 1, 2012 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
  4. HooraySpelling

    Anyone else annoyed by how the first shirt says "God's Angle"? At least get the spelling right.

    March 1, 2012 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |

      Well, the thought of god has always been a bit obtuse in my book. 😉

      March 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      On one of the other shirts, it said, "Gone To Soon".
      Bearing in mind that the customer has to approve of these designs...

      March 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |

      The maker of the T in picture number 2 was a little off on the placement of the stars. About 2 inches lower and in the words of Barney Stintson, he would have "nailed it!"

      March 1, 2012 at 10:21 am | Report abuse |
  5. hamsta

    @hoorayspelling no i think they spelled it exactly right.thats gods angle, live by a gun die by a gun live the gangsta life die early.

    March 1, 2012 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      That was a shirt commemorating the death of A TWO-YEAR OLD LITTLE GIRl!
      Yeah, she was really into the gansta life.
      Grow a freaking heart, hamsta!

      March 1, 2012 at 10:10 am | Report abuse |

      Prepare to have your mind blown! Epic quote coming at you...

      “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.”

      I am sure that the "thugs" and "gangsta's" were thinking about a huge party and not that .38 slug going through their head when they died.

      March 1, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick©

      Once again @hamsta you have proven that you are heartless.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Christine

    He was murdered!!!

    March 1, 2012 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |

      Relax, it was just a flesh wound.

      March 1, 2012 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Yes, Christine, they were *all* murdered.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |

    I guess when your name is "Sweetwyne" spelling is the least of your worries.

    March 1, 2012 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  8. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©™

    Oh–forgetful me!
    My earlier post didn't make the cut because I wrote that New Orleans, with its RIP T-shirts and children's dreams of the death party, is "enti-
    tled" to its nickname, Murder City, which NO is attempting to lose.
    The nickname will stay until there is a lot of change: a city is its people, and so is a nation.
    New Orleans is still a good place to be from.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
  9. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©™

    I love the spelling in "Gone To Soon."
    It's very 2012.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. hamsta

    @banasy true the child may have been innocent but the parent rarely is god works with mysterious angles.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      hamsta, going by your premise, the bullet should have hit the parent.
      The t-shirt spelling of "angel" is wrong.
      Mysterious ways not withstanding, admit it and move on.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Patrick©

      @hamsta, you are Godless so don't even go there.

      March 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. banasy©

    Good morning, JIF.
    I grew up in a city that once held the ti tile "Murder Capital" in the 70's.
    I assure you that Gary is *not* a good place to be from, and never was.
    I don't know how the t-shirt business is doing there, though.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©™

      Gary is "good to be from" because you left.
      Get it?

      March 1, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Slow on the uptake today.
      And I have seen you say the same thing about Mississippi before...d'oh!
      My coffee is weak today...

      I grew up in Hammond, which is also good to be from... 😉

      March 1, 2012 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
  12. BOMBO ©

    Nothing says "I'm a dolt" better than an inappropriate t-shirt.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I see people with a tattoo of their loved ones also; I had that suggested to me after my son died.
      I said, "I have pictures, thanks."
      To me, nothing says "I loved my son" like a saggy, baggy tattoo of him somewhere on my body when I'm 80...
      OK for some people, I suppose, like these t-shirts.
      Not my cuppa.

      March 1, 2012 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO ©

      I hope no one thinks I was saying a loved one's picture on a shirt is inappropriate. I was referring more to the spelling errors, as well as the overall look of some, especially if they get bundled into a picture of a departed loved one. Some of these designs are not particularly tasteful. To each his own, I guess. There is a gravestone not far from where I'm sitting, for a high schooler killed years ago in a car accident, that actually has engraved on it "Killed by a Drunk Driver".

      March 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Whatever comforts the living, I suppose.
      I know I have my little ways of commemorating my son's birth day and death day, both of which occured in April, 10 days apart.
      April is a wash, for me.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. BOMBO ©

    God will smite all those who question his angle. How often do people say "smite" anymore?

    March 1, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Well, as far as I have seen

      March 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Patrick©

    @banasy, I am so very sorry that you lost your son and April must be a very difficult month for you. I do not approve of these t-shirts that are being promoted but if it helps the survivors deal with the pain, who am I to judge Here in the Southwest the interstates particularly the I-10 that have roadside memorials called descansos that family members or loved ones place along the roadside for people that were killed by a drunk driver. To me, it makes me very sad and drives the message hard about driving while intoxicated. It does provide comfort for those left behindl.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Thank you, Patrick©.

      We have the roadside memorials here too; they commemorate a traffic fatality, but not necessarily from drunken driving accidents.

      I think that if one wants to produce a t-shirt commemorating a loved one's passing, that's fine; whatever helps....I've seen these where I live also; violence is not limited to just NO.
      The t-shirts that I've seen here, however, have spelled the word angel correctly.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. hamsta

    @patrick have you met god?i have and came back from the dead.who are you to tell me about god?do you think that you got saved by some phony preacher at a bogus church?i have news for you,you wont find god in church.i was unaware that banasy lost a child and im truly sorry about that but in my neighborhood it is truly as i said.most of the murders here are retallitory for some other murder or its about a girl.whatever the case most of the murders here the parent of either the victim or the perpetrator can share the blame due to lack of parenting skills.but like most liberal left wing nuts your guilty conscience points the finger in the wrong are noone to judge the likes of me.i already know god better than you ever will.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick©

      @hamsta,PROVE IT then. i am extremely liberal. So much so that I will write in Bernie Sanders for President. Are you not familiar with St. Louis Church? I was baptized there as was my daughter and was married there. So you see @hamsta I am a Catholic.

      March 1, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      A true and loving God does not make his point about gang violence by taking out a 2 year old child, or the misspelling of a word on a t-shirt.
      One true mettle of a man is his ability and humility to admit a mistake.

      March 2, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
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