"We love Nashville and we've grown with Nashville, we've seen it go from this nothing downtown to — "
"We saw the Batman Building go up!"
Longtime local graffiti writers Audie Adams and Bryan Deese, two of the painters behind the Johnny Cash mural at the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Molloy Street downtown, seem a little shocked at the changes they've seen the city undergo. The pair are in Deese's Inglewood studio preparing to revisit that mural, now almost 10 years old and succumbing to a decade's worth of weather and wear, repainting a piece of their past that has somehow become an iconic part of the city's landscape. They've seen the city grow around them while their chosen artform — created with spray cans and stencils — exploded on a global scale. They've been witness to a scene and a city evolving in tandem.
"We've seen professional sports come and all the downtown high-rises — all of that — and we love it," says Deese. "We have a lot of pride in Nashville and the fact that we're from Nashville. I think there's a lot to be said for the fact that we haven't tried to dip out to another city where getting notoriety and maybe commercial success from art is easier — you know, like a New York or Los Angeles. We've stayed here and always just put on for Nashville — put our sweat into representing for Nashville."
That civic pride has paid off — both artists have seen their work become an essential piece of Middle Tennessee's visual landscape. Whether it's the Cash mural (which was originally part of a four-wall tribute to the Highwaymen, with only Willie and Johnny remaining), or the walls of Bonnaroo (their 2011 contribution to the festival spanned thousands of feet and integrated images from the festival's 10-year history), Adams and Deese are all over the place.
Adams spent the summer painting murals at Pearl Cohn Entertainment Magnet School with fellow writer Nathan Brown. The murals — 12 in all — are an extension of their work at the STEM Preparatory Academy. As for Deese, you can find his signature on The Wrapper's Delight food truck and on concert ads for Yelawolf in Anitoch and Wiz Khalifa above the Kwik Sak on West End. The pair's names are on the patio walls — in four-foot letters, mind you — at infamous Elliston Place rock club The End. Their canvases are popping at the Art Crawl, businesses and living rooms across town. But the best spot to catch the teamwork is on the walls around the intersection of Eighth and Division, where they've been holding it down since long before the Gulch got gussied up.
"There was a legal wall [for graffiti] there forever — right next to Lucy Blu, in that back alley," says Deese. "It used to be a paint store and it was a legal wall. Where the mission was, well, there used to be a gas station up right next to where Yazoo brewing is, and all the homeless people would trek from the mission to that gas station. They would always cut through that alley; we used to call it Trouble Avenue. That neighborhood has changed a great deal, but we're still painting there."
As Deese and Adams discuss the evolution of the cityscape, you can almost see their gears turning as thoughts form and stencils are sprayed in the backs of their brains. Their vision is all-city — graffiti parlance that harkens back to the days of New York subway train graffiti, but takes a different dimension in a city as spread-out as ours. They rattle off alleyways and old walls in much the same way that some people recite their Social Security numbers — their knowledge of the streets and structures of Music City is far-flung and richly detailed. While they may have gone pro, working on legal and commissioned works, they still have a tagger's eye for empty spaces, ugly spaces — spaces calling out for an artist's hand.
"In the '90s and early 2000s, [graffiti art] was a new thing here in Nashville, and people weren't accustomed to seeing it," explains Adams. "But they've also grown with it, and now people are way more accepting of it. "
"Our contemporaries that are becoming business owners now, they have walls," says Deese. "People who skateboard and stuff, they've been influenced by this their whole lives."
"Plus Nashville's great. People transplant here from California, Detroit, from all sorts of cities," says Adams. As the tape runs out and the conversation turns to weddings and work schedules — Deese and Adams are some busy dudes — it becomes evident that these sons of the city are just getting started, and are ready to paint on a canvas that keeps growing, keeps changing.