MDN: Graffiti Green Light Memphis’ street art scene looks to come out of the shadows
“Brandon Marshall is a full-time artist, making a living painting commissioned murals for clients. He’s also well-versed in the graffiti world of Memphis, a small but determined group of artists who tag properties around the city.
He compares graffiti to a game of king of the hill where the overall winner has a large collection of tags around town.
“The basic point of graffiti, as the game suggests, is you want to write your name as much as possible in the most aesthetically pleasing way as possible so you stand out,” he said. “For me, it was a catalyst for creative energy. I was focused on the expression side of it. There is also part of it that’s ignorance and people wanting to write on things that don’t belong to them. That’s vandalism. There is a fine line.”
On the legal side of that line are street artists – like Marshall – who started tagging buildings illegally now creating paintings for businesses and for money. And a growing group of artists and supporters is working to foster further development of Memphis’ street art inventory and community through city-sanctioned projects.
Marshall got into graffiti 11 years ago and says he’s among the “first-generation” graffiti artists who grew up in Memphis watching other artists who came to the city to paint. Retired from the illegal side, he now makes art his full-time profession as a mural painter
Michael Roy said it only makes sense for those artists who are talented enough and can find paying clients. Muralists typically aren’t studio artists who decide to shift gears, he said.
“It’s a craft you have to be cognizant of that’s different than painting on canvas,” he said. “The cool thing about painting large on walls is it’s craft-based. … With graffiti you can’t hide. A lot of mural styles wouldn’t exist without graffiti. Vandalism paved the way for murals.”
Roy is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast but came to the Bluff City to attend Memphis College of Art. After time spent traveling and living abroad, he returned to Memphis, where he is paid for his work by clients that include smaller businesses, such as Eclectic Eye and Wiseacre Brewing.
Marshall said the street art community in Memphis is small – maybe a dozen artists ranging in age from 14 to mid-30s. And because it’s such a small scene, it’s more welcoming and lacking the violence that can occur in other cities where “toys,” or graffiti newbies, might be jumped by other artists or have their works painted over.
“In other cities graffiti is notoriously difficult to be a novice,” Marshall said. “When you don’t know the etiquette, leaving trash behind, that’s what we call a toy. … Here in Memphis, because it’s a small scene and not as many people are interested in it, this is an inclusive town. It’s a good town to be inexperienced. If you’re not a complete idiot someone will take you under their wing and explain what to do.”
‘We’re trying to get rid of this’
Karen Golightly, an English professor at Christian Brothers University, travels frequently and has observed graffiti around the world.
She found it strange not seeing much street art in Memphis. But once she really began to look, it was in random places she encountered in everyday life: on buildings, at gas stations, even on the sidewalk near her children’s school.
Over several months Golightly gained the trust of local graffiti artists, discovering where they were painting and what signs meant. Graffiti was around Memphis, she discovered, only much of it was inside abandoned buildings. She wanted to bring it outside.
Golightly photographs the graffiti she sees in Memphis and while traveling. She’s drawn to its beauty and the message the artist is trying to convey. And in publishing the photos, her aim is to preserve art that often is painted over before it’s seen.
Her work to bring graffiti as art to a more accepted place took a big step last year with the first city-sanctioned permission wall, an approval she’d sought in Memphis for three years.
“They said they don’t understand; ‘we’re trying to get rid of this.’ They asked if I’m a graffiti artist,” she said. “But this is how you get them to stop carving names in gas pumps. This is how you get them to take time and paint beautiful things – by giving them a legal wall.”
Paint Memphis – a grassroots organization organized by Golightly and others – held its first event in July, bringing more than 70 artists from around the world to paint a 0.3-mile floodwall adjacent to the Chelsea Greenline.
More than 20 artists from the area participated, with Marshall working his network to attract graffiti artists from nearby places, such as Chattanooga and Birmingham, and farther away, like the Carolinas and even Korea.
And while the Memphis street art community is mostly white men, the Paint Memphis event attracted Hispanics, African-Americans and women.
“It was cool that it was more diverse than some other art niches in Memphis,” Marshall said.
The group will return later this year to paint the north side of the wall. The hope is that it will be a long-lasting permission wall, granting access and permanence to both sides.
Golightly hopes this is only the start of an effort to see more permission walls in Memphis as the community sees the public art that it can be. Paint Memphis filed to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit on Jan. 1, and Golightly wants the organization to be a catalyst that sees talented graffiti artists painting in the open instead of in the shadows.
Her dream is to see the Mississippi River wall facing Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid painted.
“I want to understand the differences between why some people consider it blight and some people consider it a sign of beauty,” Golightly said. “It can transform neighborhoods like it did in North Memphis on the Chelsea wall.”
‘This big jungle of places to explore’
Marshall said graffiti spread from New York City via movies in the 1980s to cities like Los Angeles and Miami along with the growth of hip-hop.
“Memphis, we’re the last region to unlock this art movement,” he said. “Memphis is a great town to paint graffiti in. I hesitate to say that because I don’t want to let the secret out. There are plenty of empty places. You have this big jungle of places to yourself to explore.”
Acceptance of street art – both of the illegal and legal varieties – has been equally slow in Memphis. Golightly said the trend is slowly getting there, as evidenced by the I Love Memphis murals popping up citywide and the efforts of the UrbanArts Commission.
But a change in mindset needs to occur, she said, with more Memphians viewing well-done paintings as art rather than blight. And Memphis, following the lead of other cities, sanctioning more canvasses. New Orleans, for example, turned an abandoned four-story apartment complex into a public art project last spring, allowing graffiti artists to paint the outside surfaces and interiors of every apartment.
Roy painted a Jerry Lawler-themed mural at Wiseacre. But for the art form to truly grow in the city, he said, it needs to expand beyond Memphis-centric themes.
“It’s good we keep making art that doesn’t quote Memphis,” he said. “The more art we can make on an international scale, the more international people will come in and see it as a place for them. I want people to think of Memphis as a cultural city.”
He said more art – whether it’s commissioned or of the true graffiti variety – can add another element to a city’s tourism. He cited Detroit, where high-end backers put their support behind the growing graffiti art scene. As the murals increased, so did the number of people wanting to see them.
Golightly wants to see the expansion of more permission walls and business owners who seek out having their buildings or fences painted, much like international cities she’s visited.
A direct correlation exists between the amount of graffiti in a city to how cultured it is, according to Marshall, who references the art form’s prevalence in Berlin and Paris.
“Every major city you go to with a thriving art scene, there is a lot of graffiti,” he said. “If you can be forward-thinking enough to look at graffiti and not think it’s trash, it makes things look better.””