Memphis Graffiti: Outdoor Urban Art

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. 

Dianne, Linden Blvd, St. Albans, NY

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. 

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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

Stevie Wonder’s “Village Ghetto Land” From an Environmental Perspective

Who is Stevie Wonder, this gifted man who wrote and sings “Village Ghetto Land”? Stevie was born in 1950 in Michigan. He was born prematurely and while in an incubator, he lost his sight. Today, we know him as the talented singer, song-writer, instrumentalist, producer, and community activist. I would argue Stevie is one of the world’s most renowned musical artists in the world of all time.       

“Village Ghetto Land” is on the “Songs in the Key of Life” LP. Tamia Records released the album in 1976. The album hit number one on the Billboard Album chart immediately.    

Stevie co-wrote “Village Ghetto Land” with Gary Bird. All of the instruments were also played by Stevie. The song probably wasn’t released as a single because it never charted.    

Here’s one of my personal memories of the album; I’m sure many people connect a song to a memory, an experience. I was sitting in the back  of my cousin Denise’s car with her daughter Christina. We were all driving back from New Jersey headed to St. Albans–that’s in the boro of Queens in New York–on a cold day after a family Thanksgiving dinner. During the drive, Christina and I belted out all the songs from the album as we peered through the windows looking at the landscape of naked trees lining streets that became highways under fall grey skies.  

Sisters Melissa and Christina

The song “Village Ghetto Land” focuses on environmental justice and racism before these terms were part of our vernacular. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” probably an influenced Stevie when writing “Village Ghetto Land” because both songs are about social justice. 

 Read the lyrics:  

Village Ghetto Land  Would you like to go with me
Down my dead end street
Would you like to come with me
To Village Ghetto Land         

See the people lock their doors
While robbers laugh and steal
Beggars watch and eat their meal from garbage cans   

Broken glass is everywhere
It’s a bloody scene
Killing plagues the citizens
Unless they own police      

 Children play with rusted cars
Sores cover their hands
Politicians laugh and drink-drunk to all demands         

Families buying dog food now
Starvation roams the streets
Babies die before they’re born
Infected by the grief        

Now some folks say that we should be
Glad for what we have
Tell me would you be happy in Village Ghetto Land        

Village Ghetto Land        

When I sing these lyrics out loud, I visualize a street that is more like a garbage dump and less like a healthy neighborhood. The sense of poverty is strongest in the images of people eating garbage and children suffering with sores on their hands probably from their playground of rusted cars.     

The images take me to another place in the twenty-first century. I think about impoverished people in struggling towns, that were more like hamlets or small villages, in the shadow of chemical plants in Louisiana. I sat in the midst of tombstones in a graveyard of one of those hamlets that was populated more with the dead than the living.

Watch and listen to Stevie Wonder sing “Village Ghetto Land”:

George Michael’s cover of Village Ghetto Land  is another good listen.    

St. Albans, New York