Few people become true fixtures of their neighborhoods, but Justin Sharp has become one of SoMa. He’s best known as the owner of screen printing company AR-T’s, which opened its storefront in 2021 after acquiring fellow printer Electric Ghost located, of course, on South Main. He’s a regular at most businesses on the strip, lives a few blocks from his shop and will happily share why SoMa is so special to any who ask.
But the journey for AR-T’s has been a winding one. It began with writing down funny shirt ideas with friends, then came to life thanks to a chance encounter and spent its first years as a side gig while Sharp worked his day job.
Soirée sat down with Sharp to learn more about that journey, how COVID steeled his business courage and about the magic he sees in SoMa.
Let's start with the AR-T's origin story. In your 20s, you and your friends came up with T-shirt ideas, but it never went anywhere. When you met Lara Kahler, she encouraged you to go for it, even providing space for your first printing studio. What was it about that meeting that flipped the switch for you?
JS: When I met Lara, I was at a point in life where I knew I needed a creative outlet. I have to create in some form, whether it be through my personal style, interior decorating, art, graphic design, you name it. It gives me life.
Sometimes when you are at these turning points in life, you need a little boost of confidence to get things moving. The world is full of critics, and it can be daunting to put your creative work out in the world at first. I met Lara when she worked at the Esse Purse Museum and I told her about my idea of doing shirts. She told me she was opening up a shop across the street [Moxy Modern Mercantile] and would love to carry my shirts when I started printing them. Just knowing I had someone willing to carry my first line was the confidence boost I needed to get things moving.
My partner at the time was looking for a space for a new salon and we looked at Lara’s newly purchased warehouse space behind Central High. As we were looking, all I could think was this would actually be perfect for my shirt space, and it ended up working out perfect for it. I still have that space today and love it dearly. Greta Kresse actually uses a portion of it for her art studio.
As you've become an established business yourself and built a community with other local creatives and business owners, have you been able to pay that encouragement forward?
JS: Absolutely. Having been in a creative limbo for many years not sure how to pursue my passions, it has become a love of mine to push and encourage not only fellow T-shirt printers and graphic designers who come to the shop for their first run of shirts for their line, but also push and encourage all of my employees to chase their dreams and create. I love encouraging people and giving them the same confidence I needed when I was scared to put myself out there. I’ve had many people come to the shop a little lost at how to start their own T-shirt brand or printing business, and I love to teach them the trade and encourage them to pursue it and stick with it.
Your resume includes managing a gas station your family owned while in college, a few years with home decor businesses and then HR work before AR-T's was born. How did those experiences prepare you for your current role?
JS: I am so glad you asked me this question. Through all of those jobs, there were many low points in my life when I knew I wasn't doing what I was meant to. I have always been a very hard worker and wanted to be the best I could be at every position, but even though I was doing well at those positions, I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I just kept telling myself that I needed to soak in all the knowledge I could at all those positions so I could use everything I learned and open my own shop one day. Even though I didn't know what type of shop quite yet, I always knew I would be a small business owner in some form that would allow me to use my artistic passions. When I was finally able to purchase Electric Ghost, I was doing just that.
I have absolutely used many lessons learned through the years to not only be the best business owner I can be, but also the best boss and leader for my employees. Through my past occupations, I learned how to handle the finances of a business, how to merchandise, how to manage employees, how not to manage employees and how to create a good work environment. When you walk into a business with good energy, where people are happy and love what they do, you know you are in the right place to do business or enjoy their services. That's exactly what I try to do everyday.
Apart from the physical space, how has AR-T's grown since acquiring Electric Ghost?
JS: Combining forces with AR-T’s and Electric Ghost was a match made in heaven. My first printing studio was equipped with the equipment made for small runs of T-shirts, all manually screen printed by me. As my shirt business grew over the years, I began getting very large custom orders that were very hard for me to do manually. I spent many late nights burning the midnight oil to meet deadlines on some pretty large orders. Purchasing Electric Ghost gave me access to equipment and a space for me to easily streamline the printing process that allowed me to more easily mass produce custom T-shirt orders and in less time, which in turn gave me a healthier work/life balance.
Having this equipment and a wonderful staff has allowed the AR-T’s T-shirt brand to flourish and sell more on the wholesale level, and the managing skills I learned over the years have allowed me to fine-tune and streamline Electric Ghost’s ordering and printing process so that placing custom printing orders with us can be as seamless as possible. In doing so, both businesses are growing more every year. I am truly grateful for this success and try to remain humble and have to pinch myself every now and then to remind me that my dream came true and my hard work paid off.
You've said SoMa is the perfect fit for the first AR-T's brick and mortar. Tell me about that fit and how the neighborhood has played a part in your story.
JS: I was obsessed with the SoMa neighborhood from the very first time I drove down Main to eat at The Root 10 years ago. It was the first time I had driven down the street in the daylight. I only came to the area for late night drinks at Midtown or a show at Juanita’s (RIP). This very first trip was when I walked over from The Root to tour the Esse Purse Museum and met Lara. After I taught myself how to print (literally through YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error), I began to sell at the markets held at Bernice Garden. It is through these markets where I met so many fellow makers pursuing their dreams and creative endeavors just like me. It’s where I sparked lifelong friendships with fellow entrepreneurs like Alex Flanders with Crying Weasel Vintage who just opened a new shop in Hillcrest below Control Records.
SoMa has always been a breeding ground for small businesses and makers. The community and neighborhood is so wonderful at coming to markets and supporting local vendors and artists. Seeing the community support and meeting other fellow makers in the SoMa neighborhood is one of the key factors that allowed me to grow and kept my spirits high in moments of self doubt.
SoMa is also a neighborhood of kind people who accept others for who they are. In this sad time of political polarization where minorities and human rights are constantly under attack, the businesses in SoMa offer a safe space … Being a gay man who has been surrounded by unaccepting religions and closed minded people throughout my life, it is very important to me to be in a loving and accepting area where people love you for who you are, and that’s exactly how I feel in SoMa.
You've noted that AR-T's has been an opportunity to fuse your passions for art and fashion, but activism has clearly had a big role in that as well. What has it meant to you personally to have the kind of platform you do?
JS: In the beginning, my designs for the AR-T's brand were centered around clean and clear designs that I personally liked and wanted to put out in the world. It mostly consisted of Arkansas-related shirts and quirky designs like my first shirt that featured a pack of cigarettes with a cross on it and the words "holy smokes."
After 2016, all of that changed. After the line was drawn in the sand and the hard right began rhetoric that fanned the flames of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, you could clearly see people hurting. I was hurting. Social media became everyone's soap box and was a platform for those with hate and judgment in their heart to spew that unacceptance all over the place and find others with the same views that fanned each other's flames. I saw so many awful things posted by people in my life before I moved to Little Rock, and it was deeply troubling and hurtful. When other people hurt, I hurt. It breaks my heart to see minorities hurt and under attack.
Due to that, a lot of my designs started to lean toward promoting acceptance, love and LGBTQIA+ representation. Due to that, we are now a go-to spot for these particular T-shirt designs in the state. It's why I put a "safe space" sign over my door. I wanted to be known as a space that accepts people for who they are in all shapes and forms. Love begets love.
Now for the hard-hitting questions. Tell us your favorite design, one that didn't live up to your expectations and one you didn't expect to take off?
JS: My new favorite design is the "Big A" design I sketched on a train ride while on vacation when I was in an amazing creative headspace with beautiful scenery zipping past the window. It's one of those designs that you design for yourself and just hope others like it as much as you do.
Oh, I have had many designs that we just thought would be the biggest hit. It would have hundreds of likes on social media, but no one actually purchased them. I think the one that sticks out most is my "tots and pears" design. It's poking fun at the "thoughts and prayers" blanket saying after anything bad happens. It was a basket full of pears and tater tots and with "tots and pears" above it in a retro font. So many people loved it and DM'd me about it, and almost no one bought it. But those who did buy it absolutely loved it and thought it was hilarious, so that made me happy.
My No. 1 selling shirt to this day was an absolute surprise. When the pandemic hit and Dr. Fauci came under attack, we began having requests to make a "Fauci fan club" shirt. I put one together, put it on Etsy to reach a larger audience and it sold like hot cakes. It was my saving grace during the pandemic. I was furloughed at my former job, which allowed me to put all of my energy into my T-shirt business for the first time.
The Fauci shirt sold so well that Vox reached out for an interview about it and how people were using the political climate to sell items for certain causes. It was during this time and the success of the Fauci shirt that showed me that it was definitely time to take AR-T's to the next level and do it full time. Brooks and Shannon Tipton had already contacted me about purchasing Electric Ghost and that was underway but on hold due to the pandemic. The economic effect COVID had on the world scared me to death about opening a business. The online success of the Fauci shirt and the increase in online sales in general that COVID kicked into high gear gave me the encouragement that I should move forward with the purchase of Electric Ghost, that it could be done.
For the first five years of AR-T's I had a day job as the HR director for Allied Therapy in North Little Rock. I would work there during the day and print shirts at nights and weekends. I spent many, many 12-16-hour work days during those years, and it is so nice to look back and see how hard I worked for what I have now.
And finally, what upcoming projects are you most excited about?
JS: I have been slowly working on a new project all year long. I thought I would have it out by March, but the shop is so busy with custom orders it's hard for me to step away for new creative projects and designs. But I am slowly getting there! I am in the middle of starting a new line of shirts with a completely separate brand identity from AR-T's. In the beginning, it will only be sold online on a separate website and at our local favorite gay nightclub Sway. The line will be called "That Gay Shit from Arkansas" and will feature nothing but LGBTQIA+ related designs promoting the queer culture and representation in Arkansas, sexual freedom and expression to name a few. It will be a line that I will be able to unapologetically express the raunchy, funny and chaotic queer energy and love the gay community has. It's important to me for people to be themselves and feel represented in our state, and I look forward to putting that out in the world and showing that there are queer people in Arkansas and we are trying to thrive against all political odds.
How long have you lived in LR? And where did you grow up? I moved to Little Rock 13 years ago from McNeil, a small town outside of Magnolia, Arkansas.
What’s your favorite thing about Little Rock? Honestly, I moved to Little Rock thinking it would be a step for me outside of my small town that would get my feet wet and open a door to move somewhere larger such as the New York area or LA. Little Rock quickly sucked me in and I have met so many wonderful people that have supported me and made for an overall happy and fulfilling life here. With that said, I would say my personal favorite things are the sense of community, the support and love for local small businesses and the access to outdoor activities such as our wonderful bike trails, hiking trails, etc.
Map out your perfect day in SoMa: I thought you would never ask. My perfect day would be to sleep in a little late, throw on some sweats and walk over to one of our neighborhood staples such as The Root, Boulevard Bread or now The Bagel Shop and have a lovely breakfast alone, recharging after the busy week. I would then look through the windows at Boswell Mourot Fine Art to see what new artist they are featuring, stroll through the local farmers market to check out the new makers, then step into Moxy to check out their new things and visit with Lara and her daughter Elle (and try to sneak a pet of their new shop puppy). Later in the day, after some apartment nesting and maybe a nap, I would walk over to one of our awesome lunch spots like El Sur, Raduno or our new hot spot BCW for a late lunch or dinner and some amazing cocktails. If I have enough time in the day, I might walk around the neighborhood and admire the new modern homes (I love Herron Horton's work) and renovations on the beautiful homes in the neighborhood.
Favorite social media platform? I know it's on the way out, but I'm still on the IG train. My age is beginning to show and I can't get into TikTok. Instagram was and is a huge factor in selling our brand and advertising, and I literally have no idea what to do when it isn't cool and turns into a wasteland like Facebook.
Favorite local accounts to follow? I've really enjoyed following @safehausproductions and watching them grow and thrive in celebrating and providing safe spaces and events for local queer entertainers and artists for an array of minorities. Also, I love following @ovvenwhite and seeing what new things he is creating. Owen worked at Electric Ghost since he was 16 and for about a year after I purchased it. He moved to NWA and has continued to create new and beautifully original designs. I also love to follow @g.kresse.art (another former employee and friend) and see the amazing works of art she is producing while going to grad school in NWA. It just brings me so much joy to watch people do what they love and create beautiful art and thrive.