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Clothed in grief for city's dead

Most of the young people mourning Shawn Tiller's violent death wore matching T-shirts to his funeral. Emblazoned on the front was an image of the 16-year-old, who was shot to death in East Baltimore last fall.

Similar shirts were made for the street-corner memorial service for a 13-year-old girl run over by a car in early December, for a 19-year-old shot at Lafayette Avenue and McCulloh Street the same month and for a young boy who committed suicide.

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Known on the street as Rest In Peace T-shirts, they are usually black or white and display a photo of the victim. Many also bear phrases - "Gone, but not forgotten," "Only the good die young," "Another dead soldier" - and include the street corner where the victim hung out, praying hands, nicknames and dates of birth and death.

In a city hard-pressed to curtail violence and with homicides last year surpassing the total for 2005, the briskly selling T-shirts have become another reminder of premature death in Baltimore.

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The shirts are criticized by some as a glorification of violent deaths, but those who buy and sell the shirts say the clothing line is an expression of grief.

"I think they get the T-shirts because it expresses their love for the person they lost," said Linda Robinson, Shawn Tiller's mother. "They can wear it around and other people can see it."

Tiller was found shot in the chest and head on a Saturday evening in November on an East Baltimore street corner. His mother is a clerk at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the youth was pronounced dead. She spoke forcefully against violence in the city at a vigil on what would have been Tiller's 17th birthday.

Not all of the deceased depicted on the shirts died violently. But merchants said the majority of the RIP shirts in the city are made for homicide victims.

"RIP knocks on the door every night," said Linda Thorne, who makes the shirts at her East Baltimore rowhouse, including 168 last year. "The RIP is the biggest clientele we have, especially in the summer."

The shirts are also big sellers at two kiosks at Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall.

Photo Shop and InStyle sell a variety of items with people's pictures on them, including mouse pads and coffee cups. But Kofi Boatin, who owns InStyle, said about 75 percent of the T-shirts sold mourn deaths and that most of those are linked to violence involving teenagers and young men.

"A lot of times people break down crying and we have to comfort them," said Armond Samuel, who works at InStyle. He said people sometimes want slogans printed that he doesn't believe in. "The most ignorant thing that people put on them is 'The good die young,'" he said.

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Anthony Howell, 22, who bought an RIP shirt at Mondawmin, said the city's dead needed to remembered.

"We live for our brothers," he said. "If they die, this is what we do. ... God forbid if something like that happened to me, I'd want them to do the same for me."

Wearing an RIP shirt signifies grief, but the shirts can take on another layer of meaning, said Elijah Anderson, author of the book Code of the Street and a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"When you have a friend or a loved one who is cut down, after something like this happens sometimes people will take sides," Anderson said. Wearing the shirt "is saying, 'I'm standing up for this person. I respect this person. I miss this person.'"

By implication, he said, the shirt says, "You can put me down as being on his side."

The Rev. Willie Ray, a community activist who has led hundreds of candlelight vigils, said the shirts can be seen as presenting drug dealers as heroes or mentors for youth. But he said the images are a reflection of the city's violent aftermath, not its cause.

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"We may see them as thugs or a menace to society, but that's not how [his friends] see them," Ray said. "A lot of them are just kids, they are just in for it for the wrong lifestyle or they are in it for survival."

Thorne started making shirts in 2000 after a double shooting in Johnston Square in East Baltimore. One of the victims, 18-year-old Jason Crippins, was killed, and young people started scrawling his name and "RIP" around the neighborhood.

"Every wall around here had his name on it," Thorne said. "I said 'No way. We can't do this,'" She thought that if people put their slogans on T-shirts, they would leave the walls alone. Initially, she copied the slogans on the walls and put them on the shirts.

"Some of the hardest kids out there, when they come in, most of them shed tears with me," Thorne said. "Some of them are burying five homeboys in a summer."

On a recent afternoon, Thorne sat at her aging computer and scrolled though examples of her past designs.

"I have so many favorites," she said, sighing. She keeps files of all the shirts she makes, giving her images of hundreds of the city's homicide victims. People like to come back on birthdays and the anniversaries of deaths for fresh shirts.

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Some images are reserved for a select few. One victim, "Jockis," was shot while interrupting a fight, trying to stand up for his sister. Thorne put his image in a pair of giant hands that she calls "the Lord's hands."

"Not everybody gets 'the Lord's hands' " she said.

One group of boys wanted the slogan "Damn, I miss my dog" on the shirt. She wouldn't do it. They pleaded. They explained that it was from a rap song about a man who had died and was missed by his friends. They brought in a recording of the song so that she could listen to it. She relented.

Another of her files has images of six young men, wearing blue outfits, who died in separate incidents. In the picture, one of the men is wearing an RIP T-shirt for someone else.

She keeps their pictures in the same file because all of them hung out around Lafayette Avenue and Port Street, in a perilous East Baltimore neighborhood. When people from that neighborhood come back wanting a shirt, she can pull up that file instead of clicking through numerous folders.

Most people don't give her the full names of the victims, only nicknames such as C-Money, Moochie and Jockis, or first names.

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"I used to know everyone's story, how they died, but I can't keep them straight," she said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com


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