Carmen Garcia just ordered sweatshirts to commemorate the 10th anniversary of her husband's death.

Updated 11:51 a.m.

Vincent Velez Jr. could feel Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic worsening last year from his Girard Avenue storefront. It manifested in his day-to-day sales.

More and more customers swung through his Northern Liberties door, placing orders for products to memorialize loved ones — many lost to fatal overdoses.

“Last year was huge,” Velez said. At one point, he got four different grieving commissions in a single week.

The 51-year-old artist has owned Airbrush Allstars since 1994.  The rowhouse shop at Fifth and Girard employs four artists, each of them taking custom orders for beanies, t-shirts, canvases and even murals.

When he first opened, Velez expected to be kept busy airbrushing the likeness of fancy cars and sports icons. But in Philadelphia, a city battling simultaneous crises of gun violence and addiction, half of the shop’s business comes from personalized “In Memory” products.

“People want to remember,” Velez said. “One way of doing that is with art.”

A reminder worth wearing

In the quarter-century since it opened, the airbrush shop has become something of an institution. Velez has more repeat customers than he can count. Some hail from as far away as Michigan and Australia — though most of them come directly from Philly neighborhoods.

Carmen Garcia is among the most loyal. She first found the shop in 2009, grieving the loss of her 34-year-old husband Jose, who died unexpectedly in a car accident. She returned two years ago, when her son-in-law suffered a fatal gunshot wound.

And she found herself inside the store again this week, ordering custom sweatshirts for the tenth anniversary of the day she became a widow.

A button Garcia ordered following the death of her son-in-law David — who was affectionately nicknamed Chach Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

For Garcia, the shop is an accessible way to memorialize her loved ones. It puts her grief to productive use. Pouring herself into the colorful designs of custom-made buttons, t-shirts and sweatshirts — the act helps Garcia mourn the loss.

“It makes you feel like that person might not be here, but you can always remember him,” she said. “It’s a reminder. It hurts you, but it also makes you feel good because you have something of him.”

“We’re showing ourselves and people around us that we still care,” Garcia added.

How Philadelphians navigate despair

Running the shop every day has become an unexpectedly personal experience, a social experiment into how Philadelphians navigate despair.

Adam Carrasquillo has worked on-and-off at Airbrush Allstars since it first opened. He often finds himself front and center facing a customer’s heartache. When folks have unreasonably high standards, or they’re extra critical of his designs, he tries not to take it personally.

“That’s the only way they can express how it’s impacted them to lose that person,” he said.

The business has connected 47-year-old Carrasquillo to Philadelphia’s bigger problems — its gang violence and high homicide rates.

“The times we live in, it’s such a shame,” he said. “It’s never the people that die of natural causes or cancer. A lot of it has to do with violence, and people who get caught up with gangs.”

Aunt Brenda is among hundreds — if not thousands — memorialized on T-shirts made by artists at Airbrush Allstars Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

He’s not proud to admit that, by now, he’s beginning to get desensitized.

“I’m like the guy who chiseles out the headstones,” Carrasquillo added. “After a while, you become numb to it.”

Like most of his employees, Velez never thought he’d get into this field. And the business model has been criticized by his fellow Philly artists — some suggest Velez is wrong for turning a profit on tragedy.

But by now, he sees it differently. In the wake of each death, Velez thinks he provides a necessary service — not unlike a funeral parlor or a florist.

“It gives them some kind of comfort,” Velez said. “They’re remembering their loved ones, and they want to share that experience.”

Adam Carrasquillo has been working at the airbrush shop since it first opened. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
A memorial canvas, about half way done Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
Memorial airbrushing adds up to about half of the shop’s business. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
Airbrush Allstars at Fifth and Girard Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
A work in progress at Airbrush Allstars Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
Carmen Garcia, right, brainstorms design ideas at Airbrush Allstars. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...