While in East Memphis, a more affluent retail and commercial part of the city, I look up and saw graffiti on a wall. Poplar Avenue is the main drag with upper-middle class suburban housing off either side of Poplar. The graffiti was on a street just off Poplar on the wall of a car wash. It was clear that the owners of the establishment left the art alone rather than paint over it. The only changes were when other taggers layered their work on top of existing graffiti.
Graffiti goes back to ancient times unearthed in archeological digs of ancient Egypt and Rome. Today, the lettering and markings are illegal in cities across the US.
I grew up in Queens, New York where graffiti is more common than uncommon; as a result I was drawn in by my memories of my old home and the outdoor urban art before me in Memphis. Some consider it art; others do not including the police. Generally, graffiti is a social statement or a tag by a gang member marking territory.
My interpretation of the graffiti in East Memphis? Taking a leap, since I am not part of graffiti culture, it was probably youth who sprayed the wall. The artists could be white, black, latino, or Asian. It’s difficult to tell although graffiti is typically in poor urban neighborhoods and often by blacks and Latinos. The words counter what surrounds it: underground culture versus the established middle-class. So the existence of the graffiti in East Memphis is a counter-cultural statement, a rejectionof middle class norms and values.
Photos by Dianne Glave