Paint splatter on Memphis


Elias Clements

All around downtown Memphis you can find how many artists express their creativity and love for this city on every other wall.

Driving through downtown, you spot flashes of bright, bold colors in the slits of alleyways and splattered designs on the sides of buildings, leaving you to think about them for days. Over recent years, graffiti art and murals have explosively grown in popularity and cemented their way into the heart of Memphians, becoming a staple of Memphis culture.

Graffiti growth

It is impossible not to notice the abundance of graffiti art in the city. Most artworks depict local celebrities and cultural staples, adding flavor and appreciation to Memphis culture . But what is graffiti and muralism? And why is it so popular?

“Graffiti is more of artists getting their name up,” David Yancey III said. “Muralists focus more on making larger scale images, and it still can be wording involved and characters, but it’s more for the public.” 

Yancey has a deep appreciation for graffiti culture and is a local muralist, painter and tattoo artist; he has an origin of and deep appreciation for graffiti culture. He creates realistic pop art with components of graffiti art like cartoon add-ins and stylistic lettering. He was first inspired by older artists at age 16 and twenty two years later, Yancey watches and continues to fall in love with this subculture growing into mainstream Memphis culture. 

“When you’re driving and you see [graffiti] on trains passing by, it’s like a little treasure in nature,” Kristina Davis (12) said.

In order to build what we have in Memphis today, artists had to venture out in the field of solidifying Memphis culture in paint.

Involvement as an artist

“I consider myself to be both an artist and a graffiti writer,” local artist Brandon Marshall said. “…a lot of graffiti writers primarily consider themselves to be vandals and don’t necessarily think of what they are making as ‘art.’”

Muralists want to use this graffiti movement to spread the spirit of Memphis. With heartfelt phrases and portraits of public figures, they wish to continue our culture.

Brandon Marshall, known on social media as Nosey42, is not well known but has made a mark on Memphis with his murals. Painting the “I Love Memphis” mural in midtown, Marshall has had a very successful career that brought him to multiple other cities for painting opportunities. Growing up in Memphis, he earned his Graphic Design degree at the University of Memphis; however, he regrets going to college for art. 

“You don’t need a degree to be a mural painter, and if you’re really motivated, you can learn and become a better artist on your own,” Marshall said. “You have to hustle twice as hard for half the pay of a normal career at times. So if people stick with it into their adulthood, it’s because it really means something to them..“ 

Marshall was what graffiti artists call a “writer” when he was younger. He would tag parts of the city illegally to spread his name. He spent most of his teens spray painting with friends under bridges and reflects on how much fun he had. However, he does admit that this type of lifestyle can lead to an off-road path. 

“So once you start trespassing and risking your freedom, and once property damage comes into play, I mean yeah, that can certainly turn into an unhealthy lifestyle,” Marshall said. “I would rather an angry inner-city teenager spend his time painting graffiti under bridges than doing hard drugs, or robbing people or breaking into houses. At least, it’s a somewhat productive outlet. I remember one time this younger kid asked me to teach him to paint graffiti, and I said ‘no way, you’ll get in trouble.’ About a year later, he went to prison for attempted murder of a police officer.”

Hanging out on the streets with no creative focus is potentially more dangerous than whatever graffiti “delinquent” is running around into. Graffiti art can serve as an escape from a much more dangerous situation, something Memphis especially needs.

“I wish that I would have shown him graffiti,” Marshall said. “He might have been trying to make art instead of gang-banging. He might have gotten really good at painting and then turned it into a career. It could have changed his life like it changed mine. Who knows?”

Graffiti has been overlooked as destructive, but it can be someone’s savior. Marshall reflects on the dangers that street art can bring, but he sees it as a better outlet than other illegal activities teenagers could become involved in.

“My friends who have done it aren’t less afraid of authority, but they’re like ‘who cares it’s not government owned, let’s just have some fun’,” Davis said.

A lot of young artists are tainted by this mindset, but it rarely leads to anything serious. It shouldn’t be at the top of peoples’ worries. The leading muralists in Memphis started off like that. It is just a part of the growth process, and the problem shrinks as people age and as the culture evolves. Following graffiti art can prove to be very beneficial.

“I have one friend. His name is Alex Face,” Yancey said. “I met him in Thailand. He just started off doing tags here and there and now he’s world known. He’s selling paintings and graffiti for $3,000 to $5,000.”

A growing art movement brings in guaranteed money. Muralism in specific has become very lucrative. Whether it is over priced or not, a lot of soul goes into these works and that should be appreciated itself.

“There’s nothing better for an artist than being able to get paid to do art,” Yancey said. “ … It’s also an outlet for performer meditation … It’s powerful and impactful for me.”

Memphis reacts

“It’s always been in the media, commercials, Hip-Hop, videos, magazines,” Yancey said. “It’s always been there, culture locked.”

For decades, graffiti has been steadily growing from under the docks. Now, it is taking the city by storm like The Blob. It is a culture that everyone despised for the artists’ behavior, but now it is appreciated for the expressiveness that was clouded by the rougher connotation. 

“I think graffiti just happens as cities grow, and I think Memphis is growing,” Marshall said. “So you would expect to see more street level graffiti and also more (legal) mural commissions as the city grows. You can’t have one without the other, though.”

Trespassing, drug use and rebelliousness are now forgotten fragments of what people thought graffiti culture truly was. Contrasting to what tagging and street graffiti does to a community, Paint Memphis is trying to reverse this effect. 

“Here in Memphis there’s a lot of run down buildings and spaces that have been left vacant and a lot of wall space downtown that are kind of an eyesore,” Yancey said.

Paint Memphis is an organization of artists that fill up blocks of empty neighborhoods and turn them into beautiful showcases of this city’s spirit. Paint Memphis has small projects, but their infamous festival brings over 100 chosen (out of 300 plus opportunists) talented painters from all over. They have paintings in the making, live music and food trucks. What else is more Memphis than that?

“The stuff that I put up has been mostly for the public,” Yancey said. “I’ve done some memorial pieces for my friends that have passed away. Those are for their families…Always, my intent is to bring some type of happiness or joy … I don’t go out there to deliberately make somebody feel bad or enrage someone.”

Yancey does what he does out of passion for the art and his community. All these murals are for the people, not for tourists coming in, but for the people who have been through the tragedies and triumphs of Memphis. 

“I would just challenge people to look at murals and artwork and try to allow the emotion and feeling of what the artist was trying to capture come across and be felt and heard, and then formulate their own meaning from there,” Marshall said.

No more bland tan buildings with the first floor windows patched with plywood. This art movement is for the betterment of Memphis and its people.

“In my opinion I think it’s a nice little treasure rather than just boring buildings,” Davis said. “It brings life to urban areas in the city.” Marshall also expressed, “I think they add color and energy and allow those who appreciate it a break from the monotony of life.”