Earl "E.J." Jackson cracked open a Miller High Life and poured a dribble into the gutter before taking a swig. "That's for my dead homies," he said.

Then he got to work. Flipping on his airbrush machine, he leaned toward a pristine white T-shirt and painted fat letters until they glistened as if carved out of red Jell-O:

R. ... I. ... P. ....

His artistry drew a crowd to his easel at the corner of 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. Teens walking home from nearby Castlemont High School asked him to make "Rest in Peace" shirts for their dead friends, while drivers in thumping muscle cars screeched to the curb and placed orders for deceased relatives.

The R.I.P. shirts -- airbrushed or featuring scanned photos of lost loved ones -- were just a novelty when they were first created a decade ago. But today they are an everyday ritual of death in many American cities, like choosing a casket or sending flowers. Shirt-making enterprises now thrive in areas where the homicide rates are high, including parts of the Bay Area, New York, Washington, D.C., Miami and Chicago.

Families order 100 R.I.P. shirts at a time for funerals, and groups wear them to nightclub birthday parties where the guest of honor is dead. Teenagers wear them to school, and a memorial wall of R.I.P. T-shirts is drawing daily crowds in a Virginia mall.

Inside Throwback City, an East Oakland clothing store, one rack is jammed tight with the shirts -- face after face of young homicide victims, with slogans such as "Gone but Not Forgotten," with their birth and death dates under the words "sunrise" and "sunset." Most of the city's 114 homicide victims last year wound up on T-shirts, according to city homicide inspectors and shirtmakers.

"It's a way to show sympathy, mourning and grief," said Throwback City owner and photographer Aswad Hayes, who was one of the first to make R.I.P. shirts in Oakland a decade ago. After spending his childhood snapping pictures of neighborhood friends, he had a large inventory when the people he knew started dying.

"It's immortalizing them on a T-shirt," he said. "It's like, if you love him, why don't you have a shirt?"

The origin of R.I.P. shirts is a bit murky, but some entrepreneurs say the shirts originated in the South, during jazz funeral processions in New Orleans. Others trace R.I.P. roots farther, to West Africa and the Caribbean, where mourners often wear head scarves or handkerchiefs with the deceased's likeness on them, said psychologist Ronald Barrett, a professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who has written extensively on African American funeral practices.

In the United States, R.I.P. has caught on particularly among young black men in dangerous neighborhoods who live in a constant state of mourning, Barrett said.

The T-shirts stay on weeks, months and years after the funeral.


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