ATLANTA — Each custom graduation cap Bria Bowen creates tells a story.

The black square becomes a canvas for the Kennesaw, Ga., artist to depict a student’s triumph or gratitude or ambition.

She painted a winning poker hand and the J. Cole rap lyrics “If I’m betting on myself, I completely double down” for Fred Brown. The Clayton State University graduate wanted a meaningful message to celebrate the master’s degree he earned last year while juggling multiple jobs.

“It’s just something I can look back at myself and say, ‘Yeah, I did that. I did what I had to do,’” said Brown, 38, of Atlanta.

Decades ago, Vietnam War protesters put peace signs on their graduation caps, a once-subversive move that’s now so mainstream artists are building businesses to meet the demand for increasingly elaborate mortarboards.

Plenty of students still decorate their own caps. But in online stores and on social media, there are thousands of made-to-order options for those willing to pay for something special. The custom designs come hand-painted or even carved in leather, trimmed with faux fur or embellished with glitter. The designs will be showcased by joyful students as dozens of Georgia colleges and universities hold their commencements over the next few weeks.

Bowen, 26, launched her company, Creatively Brie, a few years ago. She built a solid customer base with her detailed portrait work.

“It’s kind of what I’m known for,” she said. “It makes it personal.”

Other artists, such as Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College junior Emily Mendoza, also have found a market for their skills come graduation season. Mendoza started drawing as a hobby during a COVID-19 quarantine and ended up with a side business. Her customers pay $50-$80 per cap.

“Some people think I’m undercharging,” she said. “I do it for fun. It gets me away from the world a bit.”

Social media, where grads post photos of Instagram-worthy caps, has made mortarboard decorations even more popular, said Sheila Bock, a folklorist and associate professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She spoke to hundreds of graduates for a research project on how they expressed themselves at commencement ceremonies.

The cap designs often celebrate cultural identity, crack jokes (sometimes with “ambivalent humor” about massive student debt) and memorialize loved ones, she said. The messages and decorations are about “curating your own story, claiming the narrative,” Bock said.

Many schools allow cap decorations if they aren’t distracting and avoid profanity. Georgia College & State University encourages students to adorn their caps, saying messages of school pride, inspiration and gratitude “are particularly appropriate” so long as they don’t obstruct others’ view.

At the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick, regalia rules allow students to decorate their caps, but they must remove three-dimensional objects, such as “floral arrangements, Mickey Mouse ears, Eiffel Tower,” before the ceremony.

Elsewhere, stricter rules uphold traditions. At Spelman College, students can decorate caps for a Class Day ceremony, but they are to remove the ornamentation or wear another, unadorned black cap, along with white attire under their gowns, for the formal commencement.

Bowen graduated from the University of Georgia in 2019 with a degree in graphic design. While in college, her friends started asking for help with their caps and a side hustle was born. Her senior year, she tracked all her orders on a poster board she stuck to her wall.

It blossomed into a business, which she runs in addition to doing other graphic design work. She’s amassed more than 25,000 followers on TikTok, where she posts videos of her creative process.

Bowen charges $140 and up for her caps. The price can exceed $265 for her most time-consuming designs with detailed backgrounds and drawings. Flourishes such as bows, flowers and battery-operated lights cost extra.

Her calendar begins to book up months before graduation season, when she’s typically working on two or three caps each week.

This spring, she already had about 30 orders by early April.

She’ll also sell several hundred premade toppers to stick on caps that feature popular motifs — apples for future teachers or stethoscopes for soon-to-be nurses. For Ariana Grande fans, “Thank U, Next.”

Jamir Wright, 22, of Gainesville, Ga., contacted Bowen in 2020 to paint his graduation cap when he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of West Georgia. At the time, he didn’t know that the pandemic would force his commencement ceremony to be held online.

He loved the cap, which features his Phi Beta Sigma fraternity’s hand sign and a silhouette with a gold crown. Wright saved the mortarboard as a memento, planning to eventually get it framed. Then last year, after completing a master’s degree, he asked Bowen to add his new degree to the design.

The second time, he got to wear it and walk in the commencement ceremony: “I made sure of that.”

When special education teacher Shamera Pilgreen, 31, graduates this spring from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she’ll be one of the first in her family to earn a master’s degree.

Pilgreen found Bowen through TikTok and booked her months ago to create her cap. Pilgreen pulled inspiration from her studies in urban education and her love of Lauryn Hill, whose music provided the soundtrack to many hours of homework.

Bowen painted Pilgreen’s portrait in a style similar to the wooden school desk art on Hill’s album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Referencing it and Carter G. Woodson ’s iconic 1933 book “The Mis-education of the Negro,” the cap proclaims: “The education of Shamera Pilgreen.”

“I’ve just learned how to combat systemic racism against the Black and brown community in our educational system,” said Pilgreen. “It acknowledges the work of Carter Woodson but the change on words signifies that I got it right.”

When her 9-year-old niece saw her aunt’s finished cap, she said: “I want one like it.”

Last spring, Mendoza, 20, of Bainbridge, Ga., agreed to paint her friend’s cap. It was the first of about 15 caps she’s decorated for graduates, many of whom find her through social media. Mendoza said she spends a couple of days on each cap.

Her customers are largely Georgia college students and many, like her, are Hispanic. They frequently ask her for designs dedicated to and thanking their family.

“As the children of immigrant parents, we feel we should honor our parents that way because most of them weren’t able to finish school,” Mendoza said. “We feel like our graduation is an accomplishment for them in a way.”

Her caps feature colorful flowers, butterflies and quotes in Spanish. And Mendoza said she’s been moved to tears by how much graduates treasure her work.

“I have actually had one customer tell me that her parents hung up her graduation cap in their living room so every time they walk by it, they see it,” she said.

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