Mashaun Hendricks in his temporary studio space at the Nichols Tower in Homan Square Credit: April Alonso

Mashaun Hendricks is only 30 years old, but he says that he’s “retired.” For the average 30-year-old, that professional status would be ridiculous, but Hendricks boasts an unusually extensive resumé: he’s been an economics teacher in Chicago, a restorative justice specialist at Chicago Public Schools, and a mentor for juvenile offenders. However, “none of that was really intentional” Hendricks says. “The only intentional thing I’ve done is Trap House Chicago.”

Trap House is Hendricks’s brainchild, a graphic T-shirt brand that’s a synthesis of his love of streetwear and his zeal for community work and social justice. The first shirt design Trap House issued is stark red, with the words CRIME PAYS printed on the front in a bold white graffiti-style font. On the back of the shirt is a list of professions that “depend on crime to pay their salaries,” Hendricks says, such as “police, lawyers, ambulances, judges, probation officers, and coroners.” Last on the the list, bolded and underlined, is the phrase but not us. A percentage of the sales of the shirts, and of all Trap House Chicago clothing, goes to fund the organization’s nonprofit wing, TRAP (Teens Reaching All Potential), which seeks to address the root problems of poverty and violence through teaching the values of restorative justice.

“Our intention is to be cool as hell,” Hendricks says. “I want to see my young guys on the block with a CRIME PAYS T-shirt on and they surrounded by they homies and they all pointing at the shirt. They’re the educators now. The main goal of those CRIME PAYS T-shirts is to raise awareness of an invisible system—that awareness hopefully leads to an actual crime strike, which will lead to a crime drought in Chicago.”

Hendricks, who grew up in Roseland and now lives in South Shore, attended Columbia College in the mid-2000s, originally to study marketing, but dropped out to start his first streetwear line, called YORS (Young Overcomes Reaching Success). With phrases like EVERY NIGHT IS LADIES NIGHT and I LOVE MYSELF printed on the front of the T-shirts, YORS was a brand explicitly for women, who are rarely engaged by mostly male streetwear designers and fans.

Trap House Chicago’s <span style="font-variant: small-caps;">crime pays</span> T-shirts
Trap House Chicago’s crime pays T-shirtsCredit: April Alonso

Hendricks abandoned YORS and the world of streetwear to make a transition into social and community work in 2010. He eventually discovered restorative justice, an approach that takes into account the victim and the community in addition to the offender, with the goals of fostering accountability and forgiveness. Hendricks describes it as “the way in which we value the lives and experiences of all people, specifically or especially people who have been marginalized, oppressed, and harmed—those who are at the bottom—and not just those in lower-income communities: those are the kids, the teenagers, and people of low-income rural communities as well.”

The philosophy and practice of restorative justice encouraged Hendricks to teach a high school economics class at Banner South Academy High School in Jeffery Manor, where from 2010 to 2011 he conducted peace circles and engaged in open-ended dialogue with his students. He went on to serve as a mentor and restorative-justice specialist for the entire Chicago Public School system from 2014 until the end of this past school year—he helped implement restorative-justice practices and programs in all grades across the city. But with all his work and success, Hendricks could still see the deep-seated problems of poverty and crime right in front of him.

“A few years ago I was in a mentoring program in Englewood, and a few of my young men were late, and I went to go get them, and they were in the neighborhood trap house, or place where drugs are made, packaged, and distributed,” Hendricks says. “Standing outside that trap house that day I was thinking, How can I get them out and keep them out of the trap house? And the idea came to me to start Trap House Chicago.”

The streetwear industry rarely overlaps with the social-justice nonprofit field, but Hendricks’s vision was of just that: a for- profit streetwear brand that fed into a nonprofit focused on enacting restorative-justice programs. “The process of restorative justice is really how I found myself,” he says. “But my medium is T-shirts. It’s what I understand.”

“Our intention is to be cool as hell.”

­­—Mashaun Hendricks

As with many small entrepreneurs, Hendricks found it difficult to get both TRAP and Trap House Chicago off the ground. Normally nonprofits apply for various government and philanthropic grants, but he refused to submit to that process. “It doesn’t make sense to look for money from a system that sustains crime in order to create an organization to prevent crime,” Hendricks says. “Streetwear is where the attention goes. We want to be sustained through the community, the community that we serve. We want to model a for-profit business by intentionally circulating the wealth and information back into the community. In that way I’m kind of a camouflage educator.”

Hendricks was able to print and distribute a number of CrimE PAYS T-shirts on his own, but it wasn’t until he attended a restorative-justice seminar at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that Trap House really started to pick up steam. There he met Jaclyn Jacunski, a research associate and coordinator of the artist-in-residence program at SAIC, and had a conversation with her about his vision for TRAP, Trap House, and fashion as a tool for social transformation.

This chance meeting ended with Jacunski urging Hendricks to apply for a new monthlong artist-in-residence program at the SAIC called the Tower Residency. Mashaun was admitted, and this past July he moved into a 700-square-foot room on the tenth floor of Nichols Tower in Homan Square, which temporarily served as his office and the Trap House Chicago store.

“That idea that art can link with intersections of activism to create new solutions for change—so we’re not always sitting on the same model of protest, which sometimes seems like the only mode of activism—is really exciting,” Jacunski says, “because he’s thinking of new models and more ways to express these ideas through art, fashion, and dialogue, and I think that’s where his work is a really standout project.”

School of the Art Institute research associate Jaclyn Jacunski talking to Hendricks during his Tower Residency.
School of the Art Institute research associate Jaclyn Jacunski talking to Hendricks during his Tower Residency.Credit: April Alonso

The residency provided Hendricks with not only an office space and pop-up shop but media supplies and workshop spaces to make more shirts. He was given access to a classroom where he offered kids in the neighborhood a free fashion tutorial called YouBeYou Fashion Studios and initiated a restorative-justice program called Dope Dialogue. With these new facilities Hendricks was also able to release another T-shirt, one with the words MURDER MUST STOP printed above the left breast.

Instead of referring to new T-shirts as “collections,” as most streetwear and fashion brands do, Hendricks calls different Trap House lines “concepts,” because the shirts pose “ideas that need to be discussed,” he says. It’s not simply clothing, but “apparel for the campaign, for the movement.”

Trap House Chicago’s residency at Nichols Tower concluded at the end of July, and Hendricks no longer has the temporary office space and shop provided by SAIC. He’s currently looking for a brick-and-mortar venue to resettle the company and its accompanying nonprofit wing, this time for good. But Hendricks promises that wherever he ends up settling down, “that’s the space that will transform whatever community we land in, and every person that walks in through the door,” he says. “We want a CRIME PAYS shirt to be more impactful than a Nike swoosh. I’m invested here in Chicago, and once we drastically decrease the amount of crime and poverty in the city of Chicago, then and only then would I think about going to other cities. It only makes sense to start in my backyard, but this is an American issue.”  v