Thursday, September 30, 2010

Underpasses in Memphis Need Some Mural TLC!

Dear Memphian Fed-up with Eyesore Underpasses,

Let's face it: underpasses are ugly. Memphis has dozens upon dozens of these dilapidated, gross looking, crumbling concrete behemoths throughout the city. They are a prime contributor to the problem of urban blight and make Memphis look bad. It is time to fix that!

Here's how.

Step 1: Pick an underpass. What abysmal, graffiti scrawled nightmare do you have to drive by or through every day? What gaping maw of civic embarrassment do you have to look at on your way to and from work, or taking your kids to school? What monolithic pile of urban neglect makes you cringe when trying to show out of town visitors the bright spots of our fair city? That's probably the underpass you should focus on first. Afraid some other good citizen will beat you to it? Don't worry, there are plenty to choose from!

Step 2: Get permission. This would seem like a fairly straightforward procedure, and in some cases it is, indeed, rather easy. However, it depends on the owner, and the design proposed. Memphis underpasses are owned by a variety of entities, but the 3 primary controlling authorities are usually the City, the State, or the railroad companies. Each requires a different process. So research who owns it first, then get your plan together. Ask for permission to propose a design for painting the underpass, as their permission will always be conditional upon what design you are proposing. This is the hardest step. For example, UrbanArt has been trying to secure a user agreement from a certain railroad to paint a certain underpass for close to a year. Although we've had verbal and email correspondence confirming it is fine for us to paint our selected design from the railroad official, the actual hard copy user agreement seems to never be forthcoming despite repeated reminders on our part and assurances its on the way from them. While I'd love to unleash the community volunteers that are eager to get to work, and who have donated private funds to cover all costs, until I get the signed agreement in hand, I am wary of simply showing up with buckets and ladders. In order of difficulty for getting permission I'd say that City owned underpasses are fairly straightforward as the willingness of the City administration and our partners there are very supportive of the use of community murals as low cost, high impact anti-blight measures. If it is a state controlled Tennessee Department of Transportation held property, that is slightly more involved simply because they are based in Nashville and it takes a bit longer to coordinate permissions, etc. Railroads, from our experience, require the most time because they are primarily based out of state and local communities ideas and desires for improving the visual look of their built assets are generally not a priority. It takes a lot of coordination. A LOT.

Step 3: Gather your crew. Assemble a group of neighbors, business owners, community association representatives, and neighborhood civic leaders who have to drive through these awful eyesores everyday to brainstorm how best to brighten up this beast of blight. You will have to also raise the funds to pay for the supplies and any artist you wish to work with your team.

Step 4: Brainstorm. What do you want to see instead of a monstrosity? Geometric patterns? Figurative historical scenes? If you can dream it, it can indeed be done, but it will affect your budget. Here are some basic rules of thumb that will determine how much funding your civic improvement project requires: Complexity costs. Simplicity saves. Seriously, it's that straightforward. If you want complicated designs, it will require more color, more time, more expertise, and more money. Because these are underpasses and not parkland, most folks will not be using these spaces for family picnics [...or, will they?]. Many of them are poorly lit even in the day time, so, spending a lot of money on any single underpass doesn't make much sense. Good news! It doesn't have to cost much!

Step 5: Establish your budget. In general, I recommend design patterns rather than figurative works unless the area is well lit in daylight. The Soulsville underpasses by Arnold Thompson are an excellent example. Those portraits of Stax Records superstars are a hit! Working with an artist requires that they be fairly compensated for their expertise and time in consulting with your group, making design proposals for your review, and leading the installation process. If your budget does not allow for professional expertise, your group can make the design super simple and do it yourself. While it does require design sense, and knowledge of proper materials and processes, what it requires most is elbow grease! Go to your area hardware store or paint supplier and inquire as to the price for gallon of concrete water sealant, concrete primer, and an all weather concrete paint. Find out what colors they come in and if they vary in price depending on the hue. Ask about the coverage area per gallon of material. For example, how many square feet will one gallon of paint cover? You will also need roller heads, extension rods, step ladders, scrapers, paint stirrers, paint brushes, buckets for mixing paint, and buckets for carrying water for clean up, drop cloths to prevent spills onto the sidewalks, and rags to soak up any messes. You may want goggles to protect your eyes when dealing with the upper areas of columns and ceilings. You will also most likely need to rent or borrow a power washer to clean off the caked on dirt and any loose concrete fragments from the surface. A clean surface is the first step to a well made final product. Painting on a dirty surface is pointless, because the dirt is loose and can flake off, taking your paint with it! You may also want to get a set of orange traffic cones and a 'Slow: Work in Progress' sign to alert traffic of your team's presence.

Step 6: Get to work! Once the site is chosen, permission is granted, teams are set, design is decide, budgets are confirmed, and supplies are collected, you are ready to go! First, you power wash, then water seal, then prime, then paint, then water seal again. Depending on the size of the underpass, the whole installation process should take 2-3 days.

Step 7: Party time! You and your colleagues have worked hard to make Memphis shine, so celebrate your selfless civic works! Crack open a couple of beers, grill out some hot dogs and take lots of photos of your new best pals on your mural team enjoying their newly refashioned streetscape!

Congratulations, proud Memphian, you just made the world a little bit better place to live in.

                                      South Main Street just North of Crump Blvd.

                                       Central Avenue between Lombardy and Flicker

                                       Soulsville gateway murals by Arnold Thompson

                                                   'Modern Hieroglyphs' by Anthony Lee

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