By Grace Stiles
The Rockford Art Deli — sat right on the main drag at 402 E. State St. — may not be what people first imagine a T-shirt shop to look like.With exposed pipework, rafters and heavy wood paneled walls, the interior looks more like a trendy warehouse than a clothing store. While only half of the sizable floor plan is devoted to Rockford-themed paraphernalia and artist-in-residence bric-a-brac, the other is home to a large shirt press where one of the screen-printers moves in a fluid circle treating cloth and pressing images onto the custom orders.
There are arcade games in the back and even a small stage for bands to set up. The Rockford Art Deli (or R.A.D.) is a shop that wears many hats and its co-owner and founder, Jarrod Hennis, is always eager to try on more.
Jarrod himself started off taking the unbeaten path when he decided he wanted to make extreme sports videos right out of college. He would go out to wake-boarding competitions and record the action.
What caught his eye more than the sports, though, were the custom T-shirts all the fans were wearing for the event. Jarrod realized he would rather be the one making those shirts, so he got a business loan, bought up the equipment for a small screen printing operation and taught himself the trade from books and YouTube tutorials.
Thus began the Pirate Ninja Printing Shop, which today is only part of what R.A.D. has to offer. Though the custom printing shop has been in business for 11 years, Jarrod and co-owner Britney Lindgren opened the R.A.D. storefront three years ago, and have been growing the business ever since.
Nowadays, the home-grown T-shirt store hosts a buffet of different attractions and products: from an all-ages music hall and burgeoning arcade, to an art gallery displaying the best of Rockford’s up and coming talent.
The Pirate Ninja Printing Shop also offers ‘Live Printing,’ a fun crowd-gathering activity in which the Printing Shop moves its large T-shirt press and sets up at planned events; anything from weddings to birthday parties, even corporate team-building retreats.
It allows guests to see up close the process behind printing a shirt, giving them a chance to interact with the screen-printers at work. All of the printing materials used by the Printing Shop are manufactured in the US, and several of their non-clothing merchandise is sourced from artists on Etsy.
Yet despite these ‘outside’ influences, this small town boutique still manages to feel solidly local. Possibly this feeling comes from the fact that for Jarrod and Britney, artists are the backbone of the whole enterprise.
By creating a network of artists all helping one another and contributing to each other’s work, they have brought a real sense of community and connectivity that is obvious the moment you walk into the shop.
“We have a pretty huge passion for drawing attention to our fabulous local artists, as they deserve recognition for their talents,” Jarrod says.
Their gallery wall allows for the artists to gather interest from the crowds coming into the shop as well as opportunities to sell their work. Every two months R.A.D. puts on an art show, always mixing it up with new themes and mediums, as well as solo artists and group shows — this month their featured artist is a portraitist from Aurora named Chris Evans (featured on the April 8 TRRT cover) so be sure to swing by and check out his work.
A more recent addition to the shop is their consignment wall, where other artists not involved in specific shows can share their wares and gain some notoriety. The R.A.D. is also well known for their Artist Series T-shirts, where every shirt sold gives $5 back to the artist who designed it.
Says Jarrod, “It’s always a goal of ours to find new ways to help make the artists money. This feeds their creative spirit and affords them the time to keep making.”
It’s no surprise with this level of dedication that Jarrod and Britney are also artists themselves. Both have appeared in several Rockford area art shows, and Jarrod, as part of a Printing Posse called ‘Fatherless’, has a show coming up in June at the Rockford Art Museum.
He also works with the Public Art Committee to find more space in the city to display artwork outdoors and around town, helping to create a more beautiful environment and adding a cultural stamp that is entirely “Rockford.”
In many ways, Rockford is what it’s all about for Jarrod Hennis and Britney Lindgren. “[W]e want to provide Rockford with a smile,” Jarrod says. “If we can make people laugh, think, get involved, we’ve already won. We also hope…that we can bring new crowds of people to experience all that downtown has to offer.”
In this, they have succeeded, and continue to succeed with every new attraction and interesting facet they add to their smorgasbord of a store. Whether championing local artists or creating a safe, fun environment for people of all ages to hear music, play games, see fantastic artwork and — of course — buy T-shirts, Rockford Art Deli and the Pirate Ninja Printing Shop are there to help bring Rockford into a more open-minded, better dressed stage of its life.
“There are so many people that like to complain about Rockford,” says Jarrod, “and we’re about making it a little happier, one shirt at a time.”