Ludlow: Two Little T-Shirt Shops Set Their Sight on Big Goals

Michael Walker shows off some of his airbrush designs.]

It makes him feel “kind of bad” Michael Walker said about his making a lot of money from those grieving the death of loved ones.

Walker owns Mike’s Airbrush, a custom airbrush studio near the corner of Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in Ludlow.  Walker’s worked at the location for 10 years and has owned it for six.  One of his specialties is making custom t-shirts using his unique airbrush techniques.  One of his more popular items — shirts used to honor the dead with “Rest In Peace.”

Michael Walker shows off some of his airbrush designs.

“I just did rest in peace shirts for two kids last week,” Walker said.  “One of the kids died because his father broke his neck.  It was in the news.”

The rest-in-peace shirts are specialty t-shirts that bear the name, photo or some other graphic of someone who has died.  Family members and friends give these shirts as memorial gifts, many times at a funeral or vigil for their loved one.

Walker said he does this type of shirt for a lot of younger people.  “A lot of them from North Philly.”

Walker had an array of shirts designs to show on display.   Some of the designs had pictures; others had words meant to inspire.  Some sought to send a word of love to someone famous who has passed away.

One of Mike's sample airbrush designs for a rest in peace shirt.

“I can pretty much do whatever they want,” Walker said.  “I usually draw it out first.”

A business colleague and friend of Walker, Travis Fields said that when he first started in the t-shirt business he also made a lot of my money from rest-in-peace shirts.

Fields owns Philly Kid Grafix, a custom t-shirt shop located directly across from Walker’s on West Girard Avenue.  Fields moved onto the block recently after operating his business in the suburbs for years.

“I was always [drawn] to this neighborhood,” he said. “I grew up here. I went to William Penn High School.”

Fields can take photos or create a new computer generated graphic in any color and re-produce it on a t-shirt.  He has a silk screening operation where he uses a multi-step process to press paint onto shirt and then burn the painted design into the fabric using a 350-degree heating device.

Travis Fields shows off one of his high school t-shirt graphic designs.

Fields said he’s done so many rest-in-peace shirts over the years he doesn’t save the graphics anymore because because they started cluttering his computer…“I got rid of them.”

Fields said he didn’t have any rest-in-peace shirts to show on display.

“I don’t really keep them around here,” said Fields.  “They are kind of depressing.”

Now Fields makes most of his money creating t-shirts for high schools.  His goal is to expand his business to include a retail store.  He also wants people to be able to take his designs to easily create their own graphic t-shirts.

“I was inspired by Wawa,” he said referencing the method of ordering sandwiches at those convenience stores.  “I want people to be able to use a touch screen to create their own t-shirt.  I call it t-shirts-to-go.”

Fields demonstrates how heat causes his designs to stick to fabric.

Even though Fields and Walker are neighbors– and they both make t-shirts– they do not compete.  They work together. Some times they even exchange business referrals.

“I don’t do airbrush,” said Fields.  “And he doesn’t do what I do.”

“Anything related to artwork, we do,” said Walker.  “I do murals, both inside and outside.  I do a lot of day cares. I do it all.”

Walker paints his airbrush designs on a motorcycle helmet.

One of his most outrageous requests– to paint a fiddle onto someone’s rear end.

“Yeah, I do body art too,” he said chuckling.

Both of these artists started small.  They used the realities of the day to help create a a business.  Now they both have big dreams of turning their piece of North Philadelphia into a place of life. They want it to be a place where young people want to come, hang out and have fun.

“I think this could become a busy strip,” said Walker.  “More and more businesses have moved in here.  And I would say, in about 10 years, this area will be very busy.”

“I see this whole area becoming the next hot spot,” said Fields.  “And I want to partly responsible for it when it happens.  Just call me the self-proclaimed mayor of Northern Liberties!”

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