Opinion » The Rant

Don’t Destroy the Mural: Public Art Should Make Us Think

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Memphis has some amazing murals. My favorites are musical: the blink-and-you'll-miss it "That's How Strong My Love Is" at Third and Vance; the history of soul in Barboro Alley; "These Arms of Mine" off Lamar; the Soulsville gateway on Bellevue. I love the enthusiastic and pure homemade tributes to our local sports teams too, especially the bootlegged paintings of ill-proportioned tigers and misshapen grizzlies.

These pieces tell a neighborhood's story: who lived here, what happened, where to find hot wings and cold beer. All stories have conflicts and characters. Some are tragedies, some have happy endings.

Over the past decade or so, a different kind of mural started appearing — still pretty, but inorganic, generic. Follow the line of people waiting to take pictures for Instagram if you want to find one. At least one wall in every city is tattooed with a pair of wings, so tourists can be butterflies and birds while they show their friends back home how much fun they're having. These murals don't really tell a story, besides perhaps that someone read a Richard Florida book and was persuaded to put catnip out for the kinds of people they hope to attract. Art doesn't have to be deep when the alternative is an ugly wall.

Memphis has space for both kinds of murals. Thousands of bare walls, in fact. So there is absolutely no good reason to replace the 89-foot-tall civil rights mural at the corner of South Main and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but the fact that the possibility has even been considered is yet another milestone in the city's impressive legacy of finding innovative ways to screw up the easiest wins. I'd like to submit an amendment to the new slogan: "Memphis, Home of Blues, Soul, Rock-and-Roll, and Actually, Y'know, We Didn't Really Think This Through."

The mural captivates passersby with a powerful primer of the region's real story. Local children who visit the area for basketball games and Orpheum field trips can see themselves reflected in the figures depicted, instead of sanitized and whitewashed textbook accounts. Yet people allegedly have complained that the modern family depicted at the bottom, a woman and two children described in The Commercial Appeal as "fatherless" look "sad." That's open to interpretation, but why wouldn't they be sad? They have plenty of reasons not to smile; go to half the population of the city and you'll find them. Maybe they're offended to have been presumed fatherless. Maybe they're just hot.

The city commemorated the 50th anniversary of the MLK assassination three months ago by asking, "Where do we go from here?" Must we return to our regularly scheduled programming so quickly? Black history is Memphis history, and erasing it — in this case, literally — signals an enduring unwillingness to confront the issues still stifling progress. Do we want to spend our bicentennial toasting decades of boneheaded decisions and crippling inequity, or charting a blueprint for creating 200 years of justice?

I'm no art critic, but if a mural makes people uneasy about the state of civil rights in 2018, that's probably its intent. Painting over a thoughtful and provocative piece of art because some baby boomers didn't like seeing a tiny "Black Lives Matter" during their novelty trolley ride sends an ugly message to the people who live here. This is reality. If tourists are uncomfortable, they can stroll down to Beale Street for a Big Ass Beer to cleanse their palates before they take selfies in front of a sign that says "Everything Is Fine."

The city and UrbanArt Commission may swear up and down the motivation for repainting has nothing to do with the inscription, but they'll need to give a better explanation than what has been provided so far. Historians' nitpicking about unspecified inaccuracies is weak: We know Union soldiers didn't wear seafoam and Robert Church's face wasn't purple. If the mural wasn't meant to stay on that wall forever, why was it permanently installed? Why did the artists — Derrick Dent and Michael Roy, aka Birdcap — spend months planning, designing, creating, and installing something only to see it destroyed after two years? What a waste. If there's another artist lined up and another idea in the works, great. Find another wall and put it there. Let us have nice things — and leave that gorgeous mural alone.

Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing specialist.

Editor's Note: As the Flyer went to press on Tuesday, Mayor Strickland's spokesperson, Kyle Veazey, stated that the mayor would not allow the mural to be taken down.

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