Exploring Street Art in Memphis – Graffiti or Artistry?

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Imagine walking down a sidewalk in New York City or any other global metropolis for that matter and stumbling across an old, derelict building that has suffered years of agonizing wear and tear. As your eyes wander around the shattered windows and crumbling infrastructure, you notice a wall that has been vandalized with spray paint or other potentially toxic art products. Let me ask you this question – what do you see? Do you see graffiti or perhaps a majestic piece of art that reflects the artists true sense of identity?

Returning to the realms of reality, we decided to take one of our stereotypical day trips to Memphis but instead of our usual route we decided to head downtown and explore some of the street art present throughout this city. After spending several hours wandering some of the better Memphis neighborhoods and well…some that we probably shouldn’t have been in, we are delighted to share our experiences of finding some awesome examples around this part of Tennessee. Street art in Memphis is just like any other city – it’s really not all that difficult to find!

However, when you spend a Sunday morning trying to determine whether it’s rightly classified as graffiti or street art, you soon become acquainted with the intricacies that have gone into the creation of many of these forms of artistry.

What is Street Art?

Although there technically isn’t any simple definition for street art, many perceive it to be any form of art in a public place. Stereotypically inspired by the urban environment in which it is situated, street art can be found in many different forms and mediums though our focus on our walkabouts around Memphis was on wall art or art depicted on the side of architecture. Whether you consider street art to be a good thing or not, it is conceivable that every one of us has seen some form in one way or another.

“Some people become cops because they want to make the world a better place. Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.” – Banksy

One of the global street artists I am sure many of you are familiar with is English born “Banksy” as he is commonly referred to. There is some truth to the quote above because not all street art should be perceived with a negative connotation. His use of the word ‘vandal’ immediately suggests negativity but I’m convinced that much of the street art we see today is making the world a better looking place.

It’s interesting that during the recent World Cup in Brazil, much of the focus was on the street artists depicting the world’s greatest football stars on the walls of Rio de Janeiro. Their moment in the spotlight I am convinced has made many people around the world change their views on this type of art. There is no right or wrong opinion here, rather we should all be open-minded enough to accept reality.

Memphis Street Art

Taking a drive around downtown Memphis to find street art was certainly an eye-opener. Regardless of the neighborhoods we visited, there was a wide range of street art on display, all of which painted a very vivid picture of the lifestyles and opinions of the Memphis population.

Living in Arkansas, we are very sheltered in many respects to the urban landscape presented in Memphis, Tennessee but I am glad we took the time to explore this part of the city.

street art in memphis

“I Love Memphis” situated behind Urban Outfitters on Cooper and York.

Public art in Memphis is one of the best ways for those who consider themselves to be deprived or suffering in the face of adversity to express themselves freely. There are clearly A LOT of proud individuals in Memphis and much of this can be seen throughout the city as we frequently saw examples of “I Love Memphis” or something very similar.

However, I would like to take this a step further and emphasize that this street art reflects more than just a group of individualistic brilliance, instead it represents a society stereotypical to Memphis.

street art in memphis

“I Love Memphis” situated on the Shelby Farms Greenline walkway between Perkins and Mendenhall

When you hear the stories of school children and collegiate art projects creating wall murals, it really does encourage you to change your viewpoint (assuming you initially took a negative stance). Let’s take the “I Love Memphis” mural located on the Shelby Farms Greenline walkway between Perkins Road and Mendenhall. An abandoned rail tunnel that suffered from years of vandalism has now been transformed into a gorgeous mural and an idyllic rest stop for walkers along the Greenline path.

I think that we should allow the artists to take center stage here and share with you our findings as we made our way around every corner of Memphis. Please note that some of the names are solely my opinion as I describe what I see in the street art! Feel free to share your descriptive names for these awesome pieces of art.

street art in memphis

“Bird Figure” also situated behind Urban Outfitters on Cooper and York.

street art in memphis

“Toad Hall Antiques” on Cooper and Central.

street art in memphis

“Midtown” – Viaduct on Cooper and Central.

street art in memphis

“Multi-Cultural Collectivity” located under the viaduct on Cooper and Central.

street art in memphis

“Creative Advertising” located on Cooper Street.

street art in memphis

“Overton Square Market” located on Madison and Cooper.

street art in memphis

“Overton Square” located on Madison and Cooper.

street art in memphis

“Escape Alley Sundry” located on Marshall near Sun Studio, Union Avenue.

street art in memphis

“Otis Redding Mural” located on Marshall near Sun Studio, Union Avenue.

street art in memphis

“St. Blues Love” located on Marshall Avenue.

street art in memphis

“St. Blues Love” located on Marshall Avenue.

street art in memphis

“Happy Mexican” located on 2nd Street.

street art in memphis

“I Am A Man” located on South Main Street.

street art in memphis

“I Love Memphis” located on Broad Avenue

street art in memphis

“This Is Me, This Is You, This Is We” located on Broad Avenue

Summary

What an amazing collection right? What do you think after seeing all of this amazing artistry? I will admit that I have been very skeptical for a long time over the whole concept of street art. Am I convinced that it is completely positive? No I’m not and I probably never will be but what I can agree to is that there are unique situations where this type of art really enhances the overall look of a city.

Not only this, it also emphasizes the importance of listening and recognizing the multi-cultural societies we live in. Exploring street in art in Memphis was a first for both Heather and myself. This is not really something we normally do and probably took us outside of our comfort zone. However, I see this as a great learning curve for both of us and gives us a much greater appreciation of society.

Share your views on the street art vs. graffiti argument! We are very interested to hear what everyone else has to say on this controversial topic.

Weekend Wanderlust


40 COMMENTS

  1. Being a New Yorker who lived in a very dirty graffiti infested city in the 80’s, I don’t like random, bad graffiti. I agree though that beautiful street art like the ones you show above in Memphis are great.

  2. I commented this morning? That’s weird, it’s gone…anyway, I love Street Art. There’s tonnes of great work where we live, and there was some excellent art in the suburbs of Berlin…

  3. They are absolutely beautiful, and this coming from a person who is annoyed by the random, non-sense graffiti. But this is real art if you ask me!

  4. I must admit that I’m not a big fan of street art, but if tastefully done they can be an excellent way to express culture and individuality, and enhance the look of a place. I’ve seen some that do that and they’re good.

  5. These photos from Memphis are lovely, the colours are so vivid. I think if it’s done well, street art can add beauty to a community, especially if it promotes a positive message.

  6. Like you, I am torn. If it’s “tagging” (names, profane messages, gang signs, etc), then I’m completely opposed. But some of this art is really cool – even the ones that are so bizarre thematically that I’m not a fan.

  7. Melbourne (where I live) is endowed with great examples of street art…and I love it! I think there is a big difference between graffiti and street art. And it all comes down to the intent. Mindless tagging for the sake of it is almost like a dog marking its territory…whereas street art, where the intention is to beautify, or to make the viewer think, or to communicate a message, or to inspire, adds a welcome texture to urban environments (I think).

  8. When I visited Memphis, I definitely didn’t expect to love it. But it has such a rich history and deep cultural roots, and I love how to street art seems to grow right out of that history. Thanks for documenting this in such a beautiful way!

  9. Who knew Memphis had such great street galleries! Love the banksy quote, I’ve been following his stuff simce I was a teen and I even saw one of his pieces in Berlin!

  10. I consider street art all the photos you have posted in here. I think they do help to beautify an area because of the quality of the drawings, vivid colors, creativity, etc. Now, I do not enjoy senseless letters or low quality traces in improper places (or just some paint sprayed in houses or cars). I think it also has to do with the purpose of the person doing it. Some want to express themselves, others want to give a message and others think it is funny to damage other property. But, all of this is subjective. What I enjoy may not be enjoyed by you. What I do know is that more and more cities are welcoming artists to create in a public space and I like that.

  11. We totally missed this when we were in Memphis! I’m torn as well – I’m a fan of good street art, though I think it can often be taken too far and bad graffiti is often passed off as “artistic” far too much. Though I think street art really suits a city like Memphis, and the art you’ve photographed is actually pretty good 🙂 So I’m a fan in this instance!

  12. I found the majority of these scenes to be beautiful! I think street art can be both beautiful and detrimental to a city . . . but I think in this case the art is really well done!

  13. I love street art and for me this is absolutely beautiful to see on the walls of a city. Yes, it’s bold, brash and sometimes inappropriate, just like society and culture itself. But it makes a city original and individualistic, it tells you a little something about the vibe of a place. I find it fascinating and will actively seek out an area or a street that’s known to have artwork splattered across it 🙂

  14. I’m a sucker for street art, so this post is amazing for me! It’s a shame I still haven’t made it to the USA, street art looks so amazing over there :/

  15. I always love exploring street art! Especially when it is done well–I don’t like when it’s just scribbles or tagging and not artistic as much though. Looks like you found some great art in Memphis–I would have never thought to look for it there!

  16. Although I am not a fan of Banksy at all, his quote talks about “vandals” making the world look better. There is no vandalism in any of the pictures in this article. These are all legal murals and I wouldn’t even consider them street art. Real street art, whether it be beautiful paintings or a horrible tag, is illegal. Please learn the difference before pretending to understand the culture.

    • The definition of street art is clearly debatable! In my opinion, it is any medium of art that is developed in a public place. The inclusion of the Banksy quote was directly related to the topic of this post because I consider vandalism to be one sub-topic of ‘street art’, therefore appropriate to be included! I appreciate you taking the time to voice your opinion here though and they are certainly all murals that typify street art, regardless of what you consider the legality of them to be!

  17. I’m a little late to the party on this post but…

    I work on a project called Memphis Art Project, where we document public art in Memphis! If you’re interested in our beautiful city’s cultural heritage, check us out. Sweet post.

  18. The term “Art” is a VERY broad topic. I think Graffiti IS art. Here in Memphis we have a crew that’s very legit. They actually ask buisness owners whether or not they wanted a cool sign. Several buisnesses have taken them up on the offer. The only problem they have is that they have trouble with well-meaning citizens blocking their work.

    • I agree with you Mike that graffiti is art but as you are aware…not everyone will agree with these sentiments! There is such a fine line but I think many of the businesses in Memphis have done a great job of ensuring the city remains colorful and vibrant.

  19. Hey Chris,

    Amazing collection !!

    Street Art is an exceptionally famous type of art that is spreading rapidly everywhere throughout the world. You can discover it on structures, walkways, road signs and trash cans .It has turned into a worldwide culture and even art exhibition halls and galleries are gathering the work of street artist in order to display them in the art museums.

    The colourful Overton Square is amazing. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    “Overton Square” located on Madison and Cooper.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments Evelyn! Yes, Memphis has a plethora of amazing street art. We had a great experience exploring the city in search of the best artwork and I think we came up with a pretty good collection. Street art in any city is an evolving landscape so we could go back today and there would be a whole host of new work to see. But I think that’s one of the beauties of street art 🙂

    • Completely agree with you Ron! We all have our own interpretations of the meaning behind the various art designs and that is the beauty of it.

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