Chris Lewellyn wants me to talk to everyone but him. The tall, meek print shop owner walks through the building on Elm Street where he and his coworkers design and print merch for their clients. Most of them are artists of some variety. Half are from Deep Ellum.
Lewellyn’s Print Shop occupies a nondescript building in that eclectic, divisive, progressively gentrified neighborhood, and inside, the employees of its namesake scramble about paint-splattered confines, often juggling several projects at once. They create everything from business cards to hats and posters. But they are best known for the vibrant shirts they have designed for everyone from Hank Williams III to teenage comic Saffron Herndon. The shirts are often brightly colored tees with vividly realized cartoon characters and block lettering. Most of the shop’s shirts are evocative of the murals for which Deep Ellum is known.
“You definitely have to talk to the kids,” Lewellyn says. “They’re the ones doing all of this cool stuff.”
Lewellyn, 44, hired these “kids” as designers. There’s artist Hunter Moehring, who is also a member of the Dallas punk band Sealion. Nathena Hampton is a digital artist and longtime Lewellyn collaborator. In total, there are at least 10 part- or full-time employees. None are actual kids, though in the past Lewellyn has hired people as young as 15.
“My motivation is to give people a chance to do what they love,” he says.
It’s a strategy that has taken a toll on his mental and physical wellbeing. But he sees that as the cost of maintaining a print shop that is a business in, by, and for Deep Ellum. There are a few other print shops still around, namely Bullzerk, Doppelganger, and Anchor Screen Printing. Those businesses rely on their Dallas-themed merch to survive. Lewellyn and his print shop has remained in the increasingly expensive Deep Ellum by building relationships with the neighborhood and local artists. The shop is an island in the city’s largest historic neighborhood, but the glass towers are encroaching. Lewellyn is the tireless patriarch.
When the print shop was low on funds, he slept in a closet or his car, determined to have enough money to pay his “kids.” He is a supporting character in his own life. In pictures, he purposely stands in the back or off to the side, ceding the attention to his employees. Lewellyn eventually runs out of staff to brag about. So he takes a seat and rolls up his sleeves to reveal hands and arms stamped by tattoos.
“So,” he asks, “where should we start?”
There was the time he got shot. There was the time he got married on the grassy knoll and divorced two weeks after. There were the two times he tried to take his own life. But Lewellyn doesn’t like those stories very much, and not for the obvious reasons. Those stories don’t involve other people, or at least not the people Lewellyn loves dearly: the “kids,” his girlfriend, his parents.
Chris Lewellyn was born in Belgium, the son of a roving military officer. The army brat lived in Germany as a child, before his father, Daryl, retired and moved the family to Oklahoma. Raytheon bought the company where his dad worked, so the family moved to Dallas.
“That was a culture shock for me,” Lewellyn says. He attended Rockwall High School for his junior and senior year, an environment he likens to the television series Beverly Hills 90210. “I was so used to being lower middle class, so I was an outsider.”
The outsider found his people among Dallas artists, especially those from Deep Ellum. Among fellow artists yearning to make a buck off their creativity, Lewellyn—a pierced and tattooed metalhead with a taste for Queensryche shirts—finally felt at home.
“I think he sees the brokenness in everyone and everything,” says his girlfriend, Monique Champagne. “When he started hanging out with musicians, he realized he had people to laugh with, people to share with.”
After high school, he played in a few bands and studied music briefly during a five-college odyssey that ended with no degree. He interned for the Dallas record label Last Beat Records. In 1999, Reverend Horton Heat invited him to manage the band’s merchandising on tour. That same year, Lewellyn launched a print shop called The Clandestine Project out of his parents’ garage.
He had a laundry list of music clients from his days at Last Beat and leveraged those contacts to build his business. Hank Williams III soon enlisted Lewellyn. Even though The Clandestine Project got most of its revenue from those two musicians, Lewellyn needed help. He looked to the Deep Ellum community to build his team. Most of the artists he hired were barely out of their teens.
“Sometimes I feel like a vampire,” he says. “I get life and energy from young people.”
Mariel Pohlman recalls how a chance encounter with Lewellyn led to a career-changing opportunity.
“I was walking down the street in Deep Ellum, and I run in to Chris, who I had met a few times but didn’t know too well,” she says. “He told me he liked my work, and offered to put it on a shirt for this festival he was a part of.”
That event was the Deep Ellum Arts Festival, a three-day celebration of the neighborhood’s arts and music that has taken place each year since 1994. Organized by an event company owned by a man who lives in California, the festival has been criticized for claiming to support local artists but curating a lineup that is far from local. Lewellyn has fought to ensure Deep Ellum creators get their due. Each year, he prints and sells shirts with designs by local artists like Pohlman, whose design that year led to a deal with the electric scooter company Lime. Lewellyn handled the negotiations free of charge.
“I was just getting started with murals, so to partner with this big brand and get royalties off of that is so, so huge,” Pohlman says. “Being an artist is all ebb and flow; you never know when the next phone call is going to come, or if it will come at all. So you need people like Chris in your corner.”
Artist Daniel Yanez has a similar story. Lewellyn helped Yanez get his art gallery off the ground, often giving his time and shirts for free.
“He’s the embodiment of what Deep Ellum is supposed to be: a community of artists supporting one another,” Yanez says. “I have friends who can’t survive there because the rents have skyrocketed. Maybe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Chris.”
Sometimes Lewellyn’s selflessness inspires incredulity in fellow artists and Deep Ellum residents.
“It’s weird,” artist Kelly Saunders says. “I don’t get how he can give so much of himself and expect nothing in return.”
If you ask Lewellyn why he does it all, he will deflect the question and tell you that other artists would do the same for him. But keep asking, and he will eventually admit that he cares deeply about anyone and everyone. He devotes himself to every relationship, whether it’s a romantic partner, friend or someone he recently met. That level of commitment has kept his company around, but made his personal life turbulent.
“I always wanted to give all of my love to one person,” he says. “So I went all in on love, even when I shouldn’t have.”
That meant marrying someone within a week of meeting her, as he did in 2007. They wed on the grassy knoll, dressed “Casablanca-style.” They spoke like spies throughout the ceremony. Agent One (Chris) took Agent Two to be his lawfully wedded wife, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do they part. But Agent Two wanted out pretty quickly. The couple split a few weeks after the wedding, and Lewellyn spiraled.
“My depression has always been about love,” he says. “When I lose love, that’s when I’m at my lowest.”
He went to bed with a handful of sleeping pills and a bottle of vodka, praying to a God he hated that he would never wake up. He did. Years later, after another relationship gone awry, he tried the same thing.
When he talks about suicide, his morbid humor vanishes. His soft voice falls fainter. His eyes shift to a tattoo on his right wrist that reads “Make Shit Happen.”
“This is my reminder,” he says. “It’s my driver to keep working, because look around. We’re all dying.”
A few years before Lewellyn’s first suicide attempt, his best friend Luke died unexpectedly. Not long after, Sam, another friend, took her own life. Lewellyn never sought therapy, even after his second suicide attempt. He dove further into his work with The Clandestine Project. But that was taken from him, too.
Reverend Horton Heat and Hank Williams III dropped him. Neither artist responded to request for comment, but Lewellyn says they thought he was too small to support the demand of big touring acts. It was not personal; it was just business. Lewellyn felt like he had let down everyone in his life. The only thing keeping him adrift was a job at a local print shop. And even that job would almost cost him his life.
In late 2011, Lewellyn was wrapping up a day of deliveries. In desperate need of gas, he pulled off the highway and into the first station he found. His car made it into the parking lot, but not close enough to a pump. The station was a dingy Texaco on Ferguson Road and Interstate 635, a site that City Hall has since acknowledged as a hub for drug-related crime. As he walked inside to buy a funnel and a can of oil, Lewellyn noticed a group of people watching what appeared to be a fight. Moments later, while walking to fill up his car, he passed one of the men who had been involved in the parking lot scuffle. Lewellyn noticed the man’s watch was on the ground, so he picked it up to return it to him. The man grunted, took the watch, and Lewellyn proceeded to his vehicle. Seconds later, a vehicle screeched into the parking lot, and shots rang out. Lewellyn was struck in the left arm by a bullet meant for someone in that car. The shooter was the guy with the watch.
“So, yeah,” Lewellyn says, recounting the story nine years later. “I gave a guy his watch, and he shot me.”
The shooting left him with permanent nerve damage and PTSD, but he was able to laugh about it soon after in a Facebook post. He quoted Monty Python and the Holy Grail, calling his injury “merely a flesh wound.” He laughs about it to this day, and he isn’t the only one. His friend, Rasheed, who worked with him at the time, calls it “serious, but kind of laughable.” Champagne calls it “funny, because it’s so weird.”
Nowadays, Lewellyn downplays the incident. He has been through far worse, he explains. And, well, it was funny. Yet it is clear that the shooting had an impact on him. Surviving two suicides and a random act of holy-shit-that-happened violence got him thinking. Like his tattoo says, it was time to make shit happen. So Lewellyn decided to put together what was once broken. And he did it in Deep Ellum.
He rededicated himself to the print shop with much of the old team. The shop would no longer rely on two clients; they would bring in bands, performers, and companies, while also creating their own brands and designs. Lindsay Bartlett, Lewellyn’s longtime friend, joined him for the relaunch. He wanted to provide support to the culture that made this neighborhood what it is.
“He knew I hated my job, so one day he asked me, ‘How much do you need per hour to live?’” she recalls. “I gave him a number, and he gave me a job. I think that’s how a lot of us got started with him.” (It is.)
Lewellyn began to find his happiness. It helped that he had also started dating Champagne, who, like Lewellyn, has a habit for giving all of herself to others. She is a single mother, a counselor, and a sign language interpreter.
There was just one minor problem in Lewellyn’s life: the name of his business. Lewellyn wanted to keep “The Clandestine Project.” Bartlett and the team wanted to go with “Lewellyn’s Print Shop.” Naturally, he let the kids have their way. Still, Lewellyn says he does not know why they like the name. He wants the attention to be on the kids and their work, not him. Anything else–compliments, praise and magazine stories–make him uncomfortable. He has found his family, he has found love, and if there has to be a story about his life, he wants his loved ones to have the lead role.
But the reasoning behind the name is simple: people know Chris Lewellyn, and people like Chris Lewellyn. He is a brand name in Deep Ellum, and even though he will never admit it, the neighborhood needs him if it hopes to retain the authenticity it appears to be losing. He wasn’t the only one who dodged a bullet that night in 2011.
“I just can’t imagine Deep Ellum without Chris,” Saunders says. “He’s woven himself into the fabric of this place. It’s like he is Deep Ellum, and what are we supposed to do without him?”