THE STREET ART OF NASHVILLE
Evan Dale // Oct 21, 2019
Art is why we came to Nashville. Not a bachelorette party. Not the Country Music Hall of Fame. The deeper side to the city that we had heard so much about couldn’t possibly require much effort to unearth, right? At first sight, no trying was required. The city center was painted with vivacity at every turn. Brightly colored, multi-story murals and motivational tchotchkes dotted the cityscape in a manner as shallow and basic as the primary tourism clientele that flood the city each weekend. And just as quick as the striking colors catch an eye, a fleeting realization of kitsch anti-art dulls them towards uncultured colorlessness. The visible street art downtown is beautiful. But it also isn’t.
On a short weekend in a city as culturally layered as Nashville, we were going to need the help of locals were we really to discover the depth to a city that profits off the shallowness of those from elsewhere too distracted to realize just how much of a cultural goldmine Nashville, Tennessee really is.
It didn’t take long.
Nashvillians are artists. And most of them extend far beyond country music to create something beautiful and provocative. All of them seem to have a firm understanding of their city’s deeper cultural explorations and are nothing short of excited to educate the masses. The issue is that most of the uneducated masses visiting Nashville don’t go looking to be taught anything. And that’s a shame.
As we stood in the parking lot of The Elk’s Lodge in North Nashville waiting for local hip-hop artist, Reaux Marquez to give us an inside glimpse into the city’s aesthetic Artscape – musical, visual, and otherwise – we were surrounded by murals every bit as visually enticing and infinitely more meaningful than those we had seen at our first arrival to the city.
The Elk’s Lodge itself is adorned with 2-story images of local jazz legends – an homage to the building’s history as a celebrated venue for the Jefferson Street community. Built in 1955 as Club Baron, it was the city’s only skating rink allowing African Americans and also called home to some of the best musicians of the late 20thcentury. Jimi Hendrix, Fats Domino, Etta James, Little Richard, Otis Redding, Muddy Waters, Jackie Wilson, and Ruth McFadden all played there, so read a sign out front.
While we were reading it, Reaux and his crew showed up to the Elk’s Lodge aware of its importance and equally aware that the artful culturescape of Nashville’s realist underbelly might one day paint a mural of them if they continue on the righteous path of conscious hip-hop, enriching the black community with cultural opportunity, and collective prosperity all rooted in art.
The tour begun the moment Reaux Marquez and his close friends – a creative collective called the Black City Travelers – met us in the parking lot. There was Cauz: collected and quiet in his deep understanding of art, business, and their firm coalescence in Nashville’s creative scene; Mikey: vividly in-depth about particular instillations, street artists, and their relationship to the local hip-hop spectrum; Joseph: a photographer and cinematographer who knew just where to take us for the most visually stimulating and storyline-driven pieces in the city; and Reaux: the local hip-hop artist that we photographed at each spot while he stoically explained in detail the separation between the Nashville the world knows and the Nashville only explored by Nashvillians.
We were fortunate enough to seek the latter in accompaniment of those who know it best.
Jefferson Street itself was a pointedly necessary start. Block after block of locally owned businesses and mom-and-pop shops were painted with the work of likewise local artists. And among those artists, one name – another creative collective – stood out immediately. Norf Studios – which itself is comprised of Woke3, Keep3, DoughJoe, and Sensei – are largely to thank for the current muralist campaign in North (Norf) Nashville.
‘Norf Art Collective (Norf) is a multimedia creative team formed up of advocates for North Nashville TN. We create work that is socially engaged in the public, often depicting issues affecting our community while celebrating unique cultural and historical aspects of respective neighborhoods. The creation of Norf was sparked when a handful of creatives realized the impact that Norf Wall Fest had on the community. At that moment “Norf” had become something that we’d put above ourselves.’
Creativity that serves the community as a reminder of both the good and the bad while educating visitors on the realities of the community they’re in through the eyes of local artists.
Art is not rare in Nashville, but at depth it is rarely sought by those visiting. Over encumbered by the stress of party-planning and the mirage of drunkenness, tourists all too often flock to the city center which, in quickly growing Nashville, is a spitting image of textbook gentrification and a wallowing pit of predictable culturelessness. There are of course myriad world-class restaurants, venues, galleries, and passing glimpses of legitimate non-commercial street art tucked into alleyways, but most try to stay hidden in plain sight – cultural beacons for those who know and unnoticeably passed over by those who don’t.
Art is why we came to Nashville; Deep Tropics Music, Art & Style Festival to be specific. And now, 20 minutes north of the gorgeously transformed Bicentennial Park where the Festival was hosting artists and attendees from around the world, we found art curated for Nashville by Nashville.
After Jefferson Street’s muralist exhibitions, we worked our way to an old warehouse that had been turned art community and market before being resold and turned into a junkyard. Thankfully, the art remained untouched behind abandoned cars, piles of roofing equipment, and leaned timber. And in some ways, the oddity of the entire situation felt particularly aesthetic and reminding of gentrified cultural shifts that are removing artists and artistic space from the public hand.
Gentrification and touristic numbness aside, artists are prevailing in Nashville. A community hellbent on continuing the city’s trend as a cultural haven for those willing to find it, artistic collectives like Norf Studios and the Black City Travelers are making it possible not only for artists to survive, but to thrive. And as such a quickly growing city, artistic influence from elsewhere and an exploding population of tourists – at least some of which venture out of Downtown to explore the culture at more depth – are dawning more limelight on some of the most unique artists – visual and musical – that the country has to offer.
If one final note need be mentioned when discussing the Street Art of Nashville, it’s just how intimate and expressive all of it is. As the capital city of one of the most diverse states in the most racially sensitive region of the United States, a solid portion of Nashville’s street art focuses on racial issues, socio-political inequality, and minority pride. And if that delineation of visual art (and of the local hip-hop scene) isn’t indicative and mirroring of Nashville’s true identity over the raging bachelorette parties and country music celebration, nothing could be.
The work that artists of all kinds from Nashville are doing is important at a scale rarely reached collectively elsewhere in the world.