How Nashville’s Murals Are Raising Visibility — and Eyebrows

Murals0012#WhatLiftsYou by Kelsey Montague: The GulchPhoto: Daniel Meigs

On a Tuesday morning just before 11 a.m., there’s a line forming in front of the wings mural on the exterior wall of a parking garage in the Gulch. By 2 p.m., the line winds down and out of the alley adjacent to the restaurant next door. A yellow delivery truck honks as it backs into the alley, trying to encourage the group to move out of the way and onto the sidewalk. Minutes later, the driver of a compact car maneuvers around the people standing in her way. 

There are couples, families, groups of 20-somethings. All of them have at least one accomplice — someone to take a picture of them in front of the mural, which depicts a pair of tall white wings that stretch up the side of the building. A blond woman sits in front of a tiny set of wings next to the larger image. She turns her head back toward the camera in a dramatic, sultry pose. Another woman spreads her arms wide and looks toward the sky in front of the larger pair of wings, a delicate painting that incorporates guitars and a cowboy boot into a lace-like pattern. The pattern fills the wings with the kind of hand-drawn intricacy you might expect to see on a particularly creative coffee shop’s daily-specials board.

A Canadian family from outside of Toronto waits at the back of the line. They have five children ranging in age from 7 to 15 — four daughters and one son — and they’re in town for only two days. The wings are on their must list for the trip. Mom found the mural on Pinterest, and her daughters just had to see it. They’ve already gotten their pictures in front of the “I Believe in Nashville” mural in 12South. 

Murals0016#WhatLiftsYou by Kelsey Montague: The GulchPhoto: Daniel MeigsAnother family in line is in from New York: Dixie Nichols and her daughter Zoe, 13, saw the mural on Instagram. Dixie Nichols’ husband, director of the health care company Anthem, is in town for work. 

“I had a friend who was here six weeks ago and posted a beautiful picture in front of the wings, and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, I just found out I’m going to Nashville, and this is definitely something I have to do,’ ” says Nichols. She says they plan to visit as many murals as they can while in the city. 

It might seem like the murals popped up overnight, like you blinked and suddenly every wall that didn’t already have a guitar or a Johnny Cash portrait got a fresh coat of dancing bears or derivative graffiti-lite squiggles. But there’s a visual language developing in these murals, and it’s cresting alongside a wave of developers who want to stake their claims in Nashville’s growing visibility.

The wings mural in the Gulch was painted by New York artist Kelsey Montague as part of a series she’s done called “#WhatLiftsYou.” Search the hashtag on Instagram and you’ll find nearly 70,000 posts in front of Montague’s murals — all with the sort of online-spirational captions you might expect under this sort of vaguely optimistic hashtag. 

Montague recently told Forbes that the wings went viral after Taylor Swift posed in front of a set that the artist painted in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood in 2014. Montague tells the Scene that in 2016, she and her team approached MarketStreet Equities, a real estate development team, and asked if she could paint a pair of wings in the Gulch. She says the developers “immediately understood what we wanted to do” and worked with her team to ensure the wings went up in the Gulch.

“I wanted to provide people with a brief escape,” Montague said in the Forbes story. “I wanted them to step into a piece, become a living work of art and then reflect on what is most important in life. I lived in New York City for some time and the city can beat you down, just as life can, no matter where you live. I really want my work to take people above it all and to encourage them to think about what really matters in their life.”

“An unexpected benefit,” she added, “was how much the visitors to my artwork have lifted me.”

The popularity of the murals is no lucky accident — the rise of selfie culture and Instagrammable art has created a perfect storm of visibility for street artists looking to get noticed. Millennials say they spend an average of an hour per week taking nine selfies, according to a survey commissioned by dental hygiene company Luster Premium White. Extrapolating its survey data, the company determined that the average millennial will end up taking almost 26,000 selfies in their lifetime (assuming our obsession with pictures of ourselves remains constant). While the relationship between art and self-promotion goes back a long way — think about Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” quote — no one anticipated the intense explosion of social media. Everyone with a smartphone and an Instagram account is not only an artist, but the subject of artwork.

Montague is far from the only muralist to put her mark on Nashville in the past few years. Just a block from the wings are two murals commissioned by the Nashville Walls Project — an organization that facilitates connections between people and businesses who want murals on their walls, and local and international artists who have the skills to create them. The murals are decorative and people-pleasing — Jason Woodside uses geometric patterns and bright colors to create an optic wonderland, and Ian Ross’ leafy junglescape has hints of traditional wildstyle graffiti. Both murals have a funky-but-safe appeal that makes them ideal selfie backdrops — but they also give an eye-catching component to the Gulch, a part of town that’s trying to establish a visual identity beyond cranes, construction workers and pay-parking lots.

Murals0003Mural by Ian Ross: The GulchPhoto: Daniel MeigsBrian Greif, co-founder of the Nashville Walls Project, explains how the model works. A business will contact the group and express interest in getting a wall painted. Greif, who moved to Nashville in 2014, shows the business a collection of artist portfolios, from which the client will pick a muralist. Though the pieces are commissioned works, Greif says he sees the murals as part of an organic street-art process and adds that he’s never had a business owner dictate what an artist could or could not paint on their building.

“Getting building owners to take the leap of faith and just let someone paint something is tough,” says Greif. “And painting a huge mural was more difficult, so in those cases, we ask the owner to pay for it, and we act as a facilitator in the process — a group that businesses can look to and trust.”

In some cases, as with murals that went up in May, June and July of 2016, a business will sponsor some of the artwork. That batch was all paid for by Gibson Guitars, including a guitar mural that Greif calls “a tribute and a thank you to Gibson for their sponsorship.”

When Greif returned to Nashville — he’s spent most of his career as a broadcast executive, including a stint with the Young Broadcasting group, which owned WKRN from 2003-2008 — he moved here specifically to bring street art to the city. He was living in San Francisco, working with street artists there, and he says he often thought that some of the projects he was seeing would work well in Music City. He’s always seen Nashville as an art city, he says, but he wanted the visual dialogue to grow toward some of the great art cities “like New York, Berlin and London.”

Murals0005Mural by Jason Woodside: The GulchPhoto: Daniel MeigsMany, but not all, of the artists employed through Nashville Walls are based outside Nashville, but Greif says the group often asks international talent to use local artists as assistants. That process, he says, is beneficial to both international and local artists, because they can share techniques and experiences. 

More than 4.5 million impressions (that is, posts, shares, retweets, repins, etc.) have been made online featuring the murals associated with Nashville Walls. The group has three more murals planned to go up in mid-October: one in North Nashville and two downtown. Yet another — the “biggest wall we’ve done yet,” Greif says — is slated to go up this spring. 

“If we could cover every blank wall in Nashville with art, we would do it,” Greif says. “Realistically, that’s not going to happen, but if we can facilitate as much of it as possible, that’s what we’re here to do.”

One Nashville-based artist who has worked with Nashville Walls has a different perspective. The artist requested to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardizing future projects.

“It’s almost like people from outside are coming inside to colonize an area that already has talented people with a message and something to say,” he tells the Scene. “But that’s business. Sure, it caters to a certain demographic, but that’s just how it is — it’s business.”

Murals5819Adrien Saporiti repainting his “I Believe in Nashville” mural after it was vandalized: 12SouthPhoto: Eric England

Native Nashvillian Adrien Saporiti’s “I Believe in Nashville” mural in 12South rivals the AT&T tower (aka the Batman Building) and the neon marquee above Printers Alley as one Nashville’s most identifiable landmarks. It’s also been defaced twice in recent months. The first time it was vandalized with tar. The second time, 20-year-old Brandon Murphy tweaked the message: He painted the planet Earth in place of the Tennessee state flag’s tri-star symbol, and changed the slogan at the bottom of the mural to read “I Believe in Global Warming.” Some heralded the acts of vandalism as a big middle finger to New Nashville. Others thought it vicious to cover up another artist’s work. Murphy was arrested and charged with felony vandalism.

“When I first painted the mural in 2012, I just wanted to do something positive, and 12South was nothing then like it is today,” says Saporiti. “And it’s not the only work I’ve done. I had no idea it would become this iconic thing that people liked to take their photo in front of.”

After coming up with the design, Saporiti says he contacted the building’s then-owners asking if he could paint it. He funded the project himself and repainted the mural both times it was vandalized, and he says he’ll continue to repaint the mural as many times as he needs to.

“I mean, not everybody is going to like my work,” Saporiti says. “I would hope there’s enough respect out there that people don’t continue to do this, but I never expected everybody to like it.”

To see the mural, you’d never know that Saporiti’s goal wasn’t to please everybody — it’s an achingly simple piece. (Some people have noted that its stars are painted askew compared to the state flag.) 

A mural doesn’t have to be complicated to be iconic — think of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” design from the early Aughts, or Keith Haring’s “Crack Is Wack” mural. But some might argue that if a work says little other than the name of the city where it’s located, what’s the point? Saporiti, whose company DCXV Designs is named in a similarly on-the-nose fashion (“DCXV” is the Roman-numeral designation for “615,” Nashville’s area code), has dabbled in more challenging work, like “Hieroglitches” outside the Parthenon. But with the demand to repeat himself all over town and sell T-shirts, baseball caps, posters and baby onesies with “I Believe in Nashville” on them, why wouldn’t he want to play to his audience with, for instance, a T-shirt commemorating the upcoming eclipse that shows the tri-star and the Batman Building, and which literally spells out “SOLAR ECLIPSE”?

Not everyone needs to be a local to make an impact. Guido Van Helten is an Australian artist commissioned by Nashville Walls to paint a 175-foot mural on an abandoned grain silo in The Nations neighborhood of West Nashville.

Final Nations0292EditSilo mural by Guido Van Helten: 1407 51st Ave. N.Photo: Those Drones“He actually involved the community with that one,” says the aforementioned anonymous artist, referring to Van Helten’s incorporation of local residents to portray a city that’s more complex than cartoon guitars, and more nuanced than a tri-star logo. The muralist covered one side of the silo with a black-and-white photo-realistic portrait of Lee Estes, a Nations resident since the 1920s whose face now looks over the changing neighborhood. Around the corner is a depiction of two children from the nearby Saint Luke’s preschool. 

But will this monumental mural  — painted at the same scale as the Statue of Liberty — ever get the selfie love that’s made the wings in the Gulch and the “I Believe in Nashville” painting so popular? Probably not. In the 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote that being able to reproduce an original artwork inherently changes its value — consider the Mona Lisa on a mousepad, or one of Warhol’s soup cans on your eccentric aunt’s tote bag, and you’ll see how that mass audience both cheapens and enriches the artwork. If Benjamin were alive to witness the proliferation of social media’s impact on art, he just might extend his argument to cite the number of electronic screens a piece of art has appeared on as infinitely changing its value. Art can define a city or a neighborhood, but it first it has to be seen. 

“Right now, Nashville is like a vacant mall, with just a bunch of empty stores,” artist Jay Jenkins says from his studio in North Nashville. “There’s so much room for different ideas, there’s so much that can happen.”

Murals0024“Breeze,” by Woke3: 1114 Buchanan St.Photo: Daniel MeigsJenkins is one of the founders of Norf Art Collective, a team of artists with a mission to make an impact in their neighborhood through art. The collective works together to make murals like “Baron ’63” on Jefferson Street, a commemoration of the building’s original function as Club Baron, an African-American nightclub that hosted music legends like Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Little Richard. The collective signs the murals with its URL — — but North Nashville has less social media visibility than the Gulch or 12South, and a quick search on Instagram shows a fraction of what Jenkins considers public interaction.

“I like interactive pieces,” Jenkins says about the Gulch murals. “But most work that I like has a lot of substance — that’s just the way that I came up doing art, the wall needs to have a message. So what’s the message?

“When I see a really big wall, I want to say something on it,” he continues. “And I want it to say something to the people who are already here, not just the tourists. I mean, think about if you had the side of the Batman Building, and you could paint it. What would you paint? I mean, you’d probably want it to say something, not have a picture of a flower. So what would you paint? You’d want to speak to the people that are there.”  

In an era ruled by social media, who gets to decide what the city looks like? Tenacious residents who want authority over their own neighborhoods? Ambitious newcomers with visions of branding their way to fame? Or millennial tourists who line up to pose in front of a brick wall at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday? If Nashvillians want to put a new face on their changing neighborhoods, they might not need anything more than one of the city’s remaining blank walls to get started.


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