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VOL. 36 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 10, 2012

Grafitti gaining recognition as art form

By Joe Morris

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Outdoor art in Nashville tends to make a big splash.

Consider Ghost Ballet for the East Bank Machineworks, the giant, red sculpture just across the Cumberland River from downtown. Some love it, some not so much … but you’re not going to miss it.

Then there’s Musica, the lively circlet of dancers adorning the Music Row Roundabout. There are still those who are offended by the nudity, or at least the male portion of it.

But look a little more closely and it’s easy to find more outdoor art in and around town, thanks to the efforts of graffiti and other artists who see walls, food trucks and more as their canvas. Working singly and in groups, these are the people who want to keep street art on the streets. And despite peaks and valleys in projects and popularity, they continue to bring color to Middle Tennessee.

One of the most visible local collectives is TM, a founding group of the local graffiti scene. Composed of artists Bryan Deese, Ryan Shrader, Audie Adams and other artists who move in and out, the group has been working locally for years, in addition to traveling to other cities to engage in their art.

Deese, Shrader and Adams also have formed another art collective, Workforce Rebellion, which gets considerable attention from fans and artists alike for its more diverse portfolio.

“It really was just a coming together of like minds back in the early 1990s,” says Adams of TM’s genesis. “Ryan and I really pushed each other one summer, starting at 6 a.m. or earlier every morning so we could work on a wall before we went to the jobs we had.

“We’ve always wanted to progress in the craft and get better, and when we met Bryan we started working with him and some other guys as TM, traveling the country for a couple of years to see what was out there and to show people what we could do.”

Adams’ most recent solo work includes the Sub Stop mural for the Nashville Predators within Bridgestone Arena. Along with other members of TM, he also created a Highwaymen mural series featuring Willie Nelson and other iconic artists in downtown Nashville. He says that, along with the continuing projects spawned TM and Workforce Rebellion, allow him to maintain his own artistic progression while also keeping Nashville’s graffiti art scene growing.

“We do the walls, have art shows, just keep our hands in a lot of different pots,” he says. “Workforce Rebellion has allowed us to bring in DJs and other types of creative people, so it’s an entirely different entity than TM. It’s letting us explore a lot of new directions.”

Fellow collective member Bryan Deese agrees. His solo projects include works for Bonnaroo, as well as an upcoming partnership with the Johnny Cash Museum for a live restoration of the Cash mural that went up on 4th Avenue soon after his death.

“TM has seen a lot of people come in, and a lot of people fall off, since we started, but it’s usually eight or nine active members,” Deese says. “We began doing it just for fun, and still do a lot of it for fun, but as we’ve gotten older we’ve taken that energy and used it to also pursue our own creativity. We get commission jobs, but really we’re just a loose collective of graffiti artists who are doing their own thing, following their own interests and sometimes coming together to work on these large-scale graffiti murals.”

He credits the ongoing energy of TM with producing Workforce Rebellion, which also is focused on artwork in and around the area, but is much more than mural work.

“There’s a lot of overlap between the two groups, but (Workforce Rebellion) really focused more on showing work publicly in galleries, and working with stencils and other mediums. We’ve also brought in DJs and other types of artists, so it has a broader reach in terms of urban culture.”

Being gifted with a wall to paint is a great way to express artistic vision, but to buy paint and pay other bills the graffiti artists, like their oil and canvas comrades, have to snag commissions.

They are doing so in unique ways, such as the recently completed work on the Wrapper’s Delight food truck.

“I’d met the guys through the hip hop and DJ scene, and had seen some of their graffiti, and knew I would like something like that for our truck,” says owner Sean Brashears. “We’re one of the newer trucks here in town, and all our wraps are named after old-school hip hop artists. We say we’re putting the street back in street food, and so we knew Bryan the guys could come p with something to portray hip hop in a colorful manner – but not distract too much from the food.”

As the artwork literally unfolded along the truck from early spring to midsummer, Brashears says customers kept track of the progress, which was good for everyone involved.

“People want pictures, and so if we’re out we usually get them to come over and look at the truck,” Brashears says. “It’s a big attention getter, which is exactly what we wanted.”

Blending personal vision with commercial viability doesn’t always go so well, but that’s part of the art world’s challenge. And while Nashville’s music scene sometimes is more visible than its artistic one, Deese and Adams say Middle Tennessee is a good place for visual arts and those who practice them.

“I have had more success selling stencil pieces than graffiti ones, because it’s objects people can identify quickly and have some sort of connection with,” Deese says. “Usually what we do on walls is more abstract, because I don’t want to be too specific.

“My art is usually more pop-based, formed around my childhood, the graffiti and hip hop cultures, and so it’s all a kind of running commentary that references my past. The fact that I can do that and still find an outlet to sell pieces shows how art can succeed in Nashville. The graffiti scene has had its ups and downs, but I think it’s here to stay.”

Adams agrees, saying his work on corporate projects supports his personal efforts, but that it’s easy to blend the two in a city with a strong arts scene.

“We’re working to make sure Nashville is on the map for graffiti art, because we love our state and have done really well here. When we succeed at that, it helps everyone in the arts community.”

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