In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Rebecca sits on her front porch with graffiti artist Brandon Marshall sipping on mojitos while he takes us all the way back to the beginning of his art form and its manifestations in our beloved Memphis. Do you know the difference between graffiti and a mural? Sit up straight, class is in session.
I invited Brandon Marshall to come sit on my front porch with me and talk about an art form that I see all around in Memphis these days but, honestly, I felt very out of the loop about. I’d seen his tags and have some mutual friends, so, alas, Brandon Marshall came by to talk about graffiti. He’s such a gentleman he even made mojitos. That recipe is in the show notes. We suggest you make yourself a batch to sip on as you listen to this episode. Also, forgive the ambient noise, we actually did record on my front porch and so you hear the crickets outside and the occasional car or plane passing by.
The History of Graffiti
This whole conversation was framed by my questions and lack of knowledge on the subject, so we started at the beginning. How did graffiti start? While the exact city is somewhat unclear, the big northeastern cities are definitely all a part of the roots of graffiti. New York, DC, Philadelphia, all had very active scenes in the seventies. At its core, graffiti started as kids just wanting to leave something behind. So they would tag their name on subways, alleys, wherever they could. Then, it escalated. With everyone tagging their name, it became really important to set yourself apart. How do you do that? Two ways—location and artistry. You wanted to make it stood out by putting your tag someplace really visually accessible to lots of people. You also wanted to make sure you added some flare to that tag so people realized it was you as the saw it in more and more high-profile places. A couple of other things worth noting: named derived first the the city street number and your crew name. Crews are basically people teaming up and they share a piece of your tag name. So Nosey42 is Brandon’s nickname and his crew, 42. So what is a crew and how do you get into one? How many does Memphis have? Hear more about that in our conversation on the podcast.
So, it’s illegal, right?
We also got into this interesting discussion about why graffiti? Nosey says by definition graffiti must be illegal, that it be done without permission. That’s different from murals, which are commissioned, or even street art which can encompass all kinds of different art forms, mostly all legal. So why risk it? Why is it so important to leave that mark? What he said was so good, you have to hear his words. “If you think about the caves, the Lascaux Caves, it’s the same idea. People are doing it for a spiritual reason. Even if they wouldn’t admit it. There’s a desire in everyone to leave something behind, you know, to leave a mark. I think it’s a very human thing when you’re holding a graffiti utensil to see a mark go on a wall to know it represents you. There something, I dunno, just very, it makes you feel like your alive. As an artist, when you’re making those first marks on the paper, it’s almost hypnotizing, you know.”
“There’s a desire in everyone to leave something behind, you know, to leave a mark. I think it’s a very human thing when you’re holding a graffiti utensil to see a mark go on a wall to know it represents you.
“People who are out doing graffiti… are going to great risk… just to tell people they exist. That’s coming from a very pure and honest place. Whereas a lot of what you see in the gallery world is just not accessible to a lot of people.”
The Graffiti Code
Even though, we are talking about something that is done mostly illegally, it turns out there is a bit of a code or an etiquette. If you cover someone else’s tag it has to follow one basic guidelines: it has to make the work objectively better. There’s more to it than that, but basically that’s what it comes down to. There have been fights over this and maybe even worse. Brandon also told us about some of his experiences dealing with instances of people breaking the graffiti code.
What makes a good graffiti artist?
Brandon and I got into the discussion of what it would take for me to get into a crew. Because, honestly, I’m ready for it. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to see how soon I’m dropping my day job for a more adventurous gig. He did tell us that when being considered, a crew will take note of the quality of an artist’s work and the quantity. Just like he mentioned in the history, they want to have artists whose work can be seen in the most high-profile places, and is at a high level. This lead us into a discussion about the place of murals and where he saw them in the landscape of the art community in the world broadly but also specifically in Memphis. He was quoted in a previous article speaking on the appeal of popular art like murals. In other words, he loves art that anyone can see and enjoy, and see meaning in. He even went so far as to say the truest form of graffiti, tagging your name on a wall, is really the most boiled down, pure, honest, form of art. All you need is a name and spray can to do it and even less to appreciate it of what it is. That’s why we love talking about graffiti, because at our core, we’re about type being used in Memphis.
A few other things
So what does Brandon think about the prevalence of murals on walls across Memphis, even in some of the newest, hippest, developments in the city? As you might expect, he has mixed feelings. He certainly likes the growing appreciation of mural and streets art. But he’s not thrilled at the growing conglomeration of graffiti and murals as if they are one and the same. He also feels that the commodification of art being painted on walls in the graffiti style is sucking the artistry out of the art form.
The mojito recipe is as follows:
-white rum of choice, absolutely no flavoring.
-a couple of handfuls of fresh picked mint leaves (grow your own if possible, very easy to do)
-simple syrup (directions below)
To make the simple syrup bring half a pot of water to a steady boil, pour sugar into pot until the water is saturated.
Squeeze half a lime into your glass, and drop in about 6-8 mint leaves. Take the handle of a wooden spoon, or a pestle if you fancy, and gently muddle the mint leaves. You want the leaves to remain whole and not break into small pieces. Fill the glass half full with ice cubes. Pour about two shots of rum slowly over the ice cubes. Put the simple syrup in a dispenser or container and pour it into the glass for 2-3 seconds, about a shot of simple syrup. Pour in club soda to taste, I normally like for the drink to be about 1/3 club soda. If you’re ballin out of control, squeeze a whole lime in there.
Pro tip: Freeze your rum. It makes a big difference.
And the final photo… popsicles.
Find Nosey’s art around town and share it with us! Find him at this year’s Cooper Young Festival too!
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