In an effort to learn more about the Black history of Memphis, and recognizing that the city I live in has many stories to tell, I set off on a journey of discovery. As I drove around, I found myself drawn to the murals that do their part to tell these stories in a unique and beautiful way. Their stories spoke to me. From Binghampton to Midtown, from Downtown to Orange Mound, and finally, to South Main Street.
I found artists who use their time to develop youth programs and organize community clean up efforts, teachers who inspire students to tell stories with colors, non-profit organizations that bring communities together, lift people up, and honor the compassion and courage of heroes, artists who encourage us to celebrate the past and dream of the future, and all who fully embrace the diversity of this vibrant city.
I am in no way claiming to be an expert on this, nor do I present this as an all-inclusive list. To the contrary, I discovered that there is enough urban art scattered across this city than could ever fit in a hundred articles like this. However, these are some that spoke to me, and I’m happy to share the stories they tell.
"This is We"
Covering nearly 200 feet of the side of a warehouse on Broad Avenue, the words on this mural say, ”This is me, this is you, this is we.” You will find this mural at the center of the Broad Avenue Arts District, which is doing its part to revitalize an area of the city that had almost been forgotten. The geometric design and words painted by French artist Guillame Alby are simple, but powerful. This is our community, our home.
The street level murals on the Sterick Building in downtown Memphis were created by Kyle Taylor, Brandon Donahue, and Brandon Marshall, in collaboration with AXA Equitable and the Downtown Memphis Commission. This colorful collection of works can be found at the intersection of Madison Avenue and North B.B. King Boulevard. The colorful artistry brightens up an otherwise abandoned building, its story being best told by the creators' own words.
Whether this is your first time visiting or you have lived here your entire life; there are a few things you will find to be true of Memphis, TN. We are a culturally diverse, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, tell-it-like-it-is, straight-from-the-hip, for better or worse, tight knit, grit-n-grind city full of spirited folks who helped build one of the distribution capitals of the world. These murals were inspired by the work, the big ideas, the soulful struggles, and the elbow grease that has made, and is making, Memphis what it is.
"A Note For Hope"
This 5 story tall mural was created by Jeff Zimmerman, assisted by students from Rhodes College Center for Outreach in the Development of the Arts, and developed by the Memphis UrbanArt Commission. According to the UrbanArt Commission, the intention of this project was "to begin a conversation about moving Memphis forward" and help people to think about the "hopes and dreams they have for this great city".
This wall mural is just one example of the explosion of art you will find in the section of Lamar Avenue known as Orange Mound. The main section of the mural is called "Soulsville", and was created by artists Kyle Taylor and Brandon Marshall. Among others, it pays tribute to legendary Stax Records artists Otis Redding and Robert Johnson.
The additional art on the far end of this wall was part of a project coordinated by Paint Memphis, a non-profit organization with the mission of connecting neighborhoods across Memphis through art. Once a year, they coordinate a one-day paint festival of over 150 local and regional artists to create graffiti murals and urban art on public walls.
2018 Paint Memphis Project on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
Paint Memphis has been doing just what their name says since 2015. From a skate park in Orange Mound to a flood retaining wall in North Memphis, on abandoned buildings, and numerous bridges, walls and tunnels, their projects have brightened up neighborhoods and brought communities together.
"A History of Civil Rights in Memphis"
This 80 foot tall mural was created by Micheal Roy (Birdcap), with the concept designed by Derrick Dent. The project was commissioned by the Memphis UrbanArt Commission to be part of the Memphis Heritage Trail. There has been some controversy about the mural's historical accuracy and its possible removal by the city, as reported in a 2018 article by the Commercial Appeal. What spoke to me was the location of this mural, at the corner of South Main Street and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. The names of these crossroads hold a special significance in Civil Rights history. Whether the placement was intentional or not, South Main Street was the location of the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Strike that led to Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968.
This mural, created by artists Nelson Gutierrez and Cedar Lorca Nordbye, was a collaborated effort between the Memphis UrbanArt Commission, National Civil Rights Museum and Downtown Memphis Commission. Located across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, the project was commissioned by the non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves.
Facing History and Ourselves uses "lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate". In 2016, they commissioned this mural in order to "share stories of extraordinary Memphians who embraced the challenge to speak out, stand up for others, and make decisions that have helped to create a more inclusive, just, and compassionate Memphis".
"Taking Care of Business"
On the side of a time-weathered building that you might easily pass by if you're not looking carefully, this mural was created by a group of students supervised by local artist George Hunt. According to the Memphis Daily News, it was part of a series of murals created around the city in 1983, and one of only two murals remaining from the project. Faded over time, but still with a story to tell, this mural depicts the emergence of Black people from slavery to freedom through education and entrepreneurial success.
"I Am A Man"
This mural was created by Marcellous Lovelace with BLK75. It was Inspired by the "I am a Man" march that took place on South Main Street as part of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. It was for this reason that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis when he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. In Dr. King's "Mountaintop" speech the night before, he spoke of the need to continue to fight for economic equality and social justice. A fight that continues to this day.
I began my search looking for art that told stories of the Civil Rights Movement, the struggle of Black men and women over so many years to be treated equally, to have their voices heard. What I found was so much more. Yes, I found the struggle. But I also found celebration. Celebration of their life and their talent, of their desire and ability to discover and create beauty in the city we live and grow in together, and of finding and sharing their voices with us. We are listening, and it's beautiful.