Knoxville's Sweet and Earnest Graffiti Art

One winter day, I was walking alone under the depressing interstate that runs through the middle of my neighborhood. The tunnel of cold concrete, dull and dead, could have been built by robots. At any rate, it wasn't built by anyone who had our best interests at heart.

Feeling more demoralized by the minute, I looked up and saw a name painted on the wall—a sign, at least, that another individual had passed this way before me. Later, on Mitchell Street under Interstate 40, "Dewyane loves Heather." Somehow, these words, spray-painted in a wobbly hand, revealed a human heart and lent a satisfying poignancy to a boring and lonely walk.

A few years ago, Scott and Bernadette West created a bit of excitement when they invited Knoxville artists Cynthia Markert and Brian Pittman to paint on the plywood covering the windows of their building under construction on Wall Avenue. Other artists and passersby joined in, creating a temporary public graffiti wall. Pittman free-handed a precise Gothic cathedral in ink. An anonymous artist tacked a plush bunny to the wall. In March 2010 the cover of Knoxville Magazine featured a photo of Cynthia Markert's iconic delicately-rendered flapper women painted on the scarred plywood. The headline read, "Graffiti Art: Ugly Eyesore or Legitimate Art?"

The plywood on Wall Avenue is long gone now and so is the art. The brick is freshly painted, and the new windows gleam. I've never been interested in trying to nail down what makes art legitimate in any scholarly way, but I do have a plea. Citizens of Knoxville, please keep painting on the walls. Street art—even tags or silly sketches—adds an interesting and valuable dimension to our city.

In Alleyways: recommended policy and guidelines, a collaborative effort of the East Tennessee Community Design Center and the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design, I find a recommendation for "themed murals depicting images of local folklore and other types of civic art" to fill up "prominent blank walls" in the city. I also find this warning, "where ... graffiti exists, someone will ... spray more graffiti."

Last Fourth of July, riding my bike through the Sixth Street/I-40 underpass, I saw a new sentence freshly painted on the east wall: "We want to live." Or maybe it was, "We want to believe."

"Did you see what that said?" I asked a fellow biker.

He hadn't. We were late for the Freedom Thighs bike ride so we rode on. The next day when I went back, the words were gone, covered by a beige square of paint, still tacky.

The city attacks graffiti in this area with a bewildering ferocity. Someone pointed out that as a gateway to Parkridge, maybe the city wants the underpass to look nice. Maybe, but demoralizing lengths of empty concrete walls do nothing to improve Knoxville.

Markert painted her last illegal piece in 1994, after a policeman told her to stop. But she continues to make street art—with the permission of shop owners. Markert only paints on old, beat-up wood. "It begs me!" she says.

Her sweet-faced flapper women are their most evocative when come upon unexpectedly, peering out of a grimy, boarded up window. Art doesn't just belong in a gallery. Discovering a dinosaur painted on a concrete wall above the rushing waters of First Creek is exciting.

A local graffiti artist tells me he finds street art appealing because it is "unsanctioned and unbound. On the street, you can do anything."

Alleyways concludes, "Where a space receives no regular maintenance or generally appears to be uncared for, someone will assume it must not belong to anyone ... (so why shouldn't it belong to them?)."

Yes, why shouldn't it belong to us? Writing on the walls is illegal, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. A lot of Knoxville graffiti art displays sweetness, humor, and an earnest desire to engage with the world. "Empty walls mean empty minds," reads a wall in an Old City alley.

In blighted areas of our city, words and images scrawled by ordinary citizens are a sign of life, expressions of a desire "to live" (or perhaps "to believe"). They are messages from an engaged mind.