Downtown Franklin has its share of spots unique to Middle Tennessee, stacked with gems that range from private art galleries and cause-driven retail boutiques to spice shops in the 16-block National Register district. Tucked just beside Handy Hardware on the corner of Columbia Avenue and South Margin Street is another one-of-a-kind business in Franklin’s historic core: The Hip Hop Shop.
Owner Ralph McLittle made the transition from Detroit to Williamson County more than 10 years ago to open the boutique dedicated to airbrushed items and custom clothing. Today he’s morphed the shop into a much more dynamic destination than its initial conception, one that acts as a gallery to showcase the new-age pop artist’s own work while continuing to supply the public with specially crafted pieces of apparel.
“Sometimes I get, ‘a hip hop shop in Franklin?’ But that’s just the name. I want people to focus on the art and energy coming out of here, and the creativity that’s driving this spot,” McLittle said. “I’ve been here in Franklin for 10 years and this store has evolved a lot. Right now I’m in an experimental mode. I really want to spread my horizons.”
McLittle discovered his talent when a fifth-grade teacher gave him an airbrush set for the summer. Inside the Hip Hop Shop, its walls pay homage to that instructor’s insight: studded with McLittle canvas creations, airbrush-and-acrylic works that the self-taught craftsman says reflect his childhood.
“What you see on my wall are influences of my life. Andy Warhol was the most influential artist when I was young. I admired his technique, because that wasn’t the style in Detroit,” he said. “And the Jetsons painting there, they were a favorite. I’m drawn to that futuristic concept.”
He points to a large portrait of Marilyn Monroe that reigns over the shop.
“Marilyn was one of my auntie’s favorites. You see, it’s personal when you come in here. You see what I’m passionate about,” he said. “At 35, I’m still growing [in my talent]. I still find inspiration everywhere and you can see it evolve in here.”
A glance around the Hip Hop Shop or a quick flip through the little photo album on the counter shows painted T-shirts, snapbacks and high-heel shoes; Swarovski-studded jean jackets and painted pianos; even custom hardhats that he created for Franklin Theatre donors in 2010.
In the custom art business, McLittle can airbrush or glamorize just about any surface he’s given. To reference that point, a life-size Despicable Me minion costume sits in the middle of his store, a kids’ Halloween costume that McLittle was asked to create for Thursday night’s holiday.
“I’m all about people coming in here and putting down their ideas with me,” he said.
“I’m flexible. I don’t have any boundaries, and I like challenges.”
McLittle has become a name in the entertainment industry, traveling around the country for on-site body painting for music videos and TV shows. Sometimes, stars will come to him for custom creations—like Wynonna Judd, who occasionally brings her kids in for a treat.
“Hayley Williams [of Paramore]’s grandfather came in here one day and said his granddaughter was up for a Grammy. He wanted T-shirts made,” McLittle said. “Next thing I know, Haley and Taylor Swift are in here. That was cool.”
In addition to the artwork, The Hip Hop Shop provides a small but well-curated collection of men’s’ and women’s’ clothing and accessories. McLittle says he’s currently searching for middle Tennessee artisans who can add to the hyper-local flair of his store.
“Because you can get custom art and clothing from me, I’m currently on the watch for local designers who can supply their own clothing for the store,” he said. “I’d even like to pull in students from O’More College [of Design]. I think that’d be a real cool factor, and it’s something I’m pursuing.”
McLittle has an obvious appreciation for the concept of community, and hopes he can continue to build relationships in Williamson County.
“I’m real thankful to be in Franklin, and a city that lets me have free reign expressing myself. People like Mary Pearce [of the Heritage Foundation] and the Baker family have been kind to me, and I’m trying to get involved with the community,” he said. “I want Franklin to support me in what I’m doing. As a young entrepreneur, I’m still learning everyday.”
The store is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.