The Columbus airbrush artist's portraits of the dead are all too common during a year of loss.
Kevin Constant Sr. was finishing a quick shopping trip at the Come & Go Center on Oakland Park Avenue when he noticed an artist working in the back of the grocery store. After talking to Raymonn “Sugar Ray” Daniels, known for airbrushing designs on clothes, shoes, motorcycles and walls, Constant ordered a shirt to commemorate his son, Kevin Constant Jr., who was shot and killed in 2019.
“I wore the shirt on Oct. 11, because it was the one-year anniversary of his death. I wore it on his birthday, Sept. 28. Any other time, I just keep it in plastic,” says Constant. The shirt features a photo of his 26-year-old son flanked by angel wings. Hugging the photo are the words “In Loving Memory of Kevin Jr. My Son” in cursive script. “I’m sad when I wear it, but it’s for my son. I really can’t explain the feeling because he was so young.”
Mourning family and friends can be both celebratory and sad for Black folks. Those two emotions coexist as loved ones search for ways to show outward displays of pain and joy. For Daniels, his airbrushed RIP T-shirts are a way to help people express their love as they grieve.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“Sometimes people order a shirt from me as one of the first things they do when their family dies,” Daniels says. He gets the call right after they make burial arrangements.
Daniels has been an airbrush artist for more than 20 years, and his work is an ingrained part of Columbus culture, though it’s not hanging in galleries or adorning big buildings. For many high school students in the city, his airbrushed pieces represent a rite of passage—seniors customize vibrant sweatsuits in the fall around homecoming. During the spring, Black neighborhoods are peppered with his banners showing off the detailed, bright faces of local graduates. Many restaurants and day cares feature his mural work. It is inviting, lush with color and accessible to business owners who want to display their personality.
“I feel like I normalize art; I make it functional,” Daniels says.
But this year, he’s seeing more customers who are using his art to mourn, as his airbrushed RIP shirts have proliferated during a time of pandemic and growing bloodshed. A Columbus native, Daniels maintains his art studio inside the Come & Go in the Linden community, which disproportionately suffers from high unemployment and crime.
“I am an artist tucked into the neighborhood where the crime is happening. I sometimes feel like a therapist through my art,” Daniels says.
During the summer of 2020, Columbus saw an increase in violent crime with 51 murders, at least 10 of those within the Linden community’s 6 square miles, according to an analysis of police reports by The Columbus Dispatch. As of September, the city’s homicide rate had increased 40 percent from 2019. Many of Daniels’ customers are young people who buy an RIP shirt to memorialize a friend around their age. Adding to an increase in Black deaths in 2020 is COVID-19, which has affected people of color more severely.
“It’s just as tragic and unexpected as when young people die from being shot,” Daniels says.
He says he has painted more than 200 RIP shirts this year, and he’s sometimes overwhelmed as the increasing number of deaths have made the shirts a larger part of his business. Some feature iron-on photos with elaborate airbrush designs, a quote or phrase and the dates of a loved one’s birth and death. His most striking shirts are portraits, capturing his subjects smiling, full of life. He receives orders for airbrushed RIP shirts from across the country.
Yvette Butler of New Albany purchased an RIP blazer from Daniels to remember her daughter, Chaude` Reed, who died in a fire in October 2020. Butler says he was able to capture her daughter’s beautiful, bright personality in the detail of his art. “My initial reaction to seeing his work—it brought me to tears. It’s like he instantly felt my pain. He felt the family. He wanted to make sure the artwork of her was exactly what we gave him, and he went over and beyond.”
Though Daniels understands that his artwork helps the community mourn, it’s not always easy to spend so much time with the faces and memories of the recently deceased. “Even though the person is gone, when I’m painting their face, they are still alive,” Daniels says. “It’s tough for me because sometimes I feel like the person is trying to come out through the art.”