Black Lives Matter Vandalism Hits Memphis Music Landmarks

Tuesday, September 1st was supposed to be a day of celebration in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s called “901 Day,” which is an unofficial holiday that celebrates Memphis culture, of which music plays a major role. But there wasn’t much celebration as the owners and managers of numerous Memphis landmarks woke up to find vulgar graffiti tied to the Black Lives Matter movement tagged on their properties.

Vandals hit Graceland—the home of Elvis Presley and one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions—as well as the city-owned nonprofit Levitt Shell music venue already struggling after being shut down to performances due to COVID-19. They also hit the “I (Heart) Memphis” mural located at Cooper Avenue and York in the Cooper-Young neighborhood.

The vandals painted slogans such as #BLM, “Defund The Police,” “Defund MPD,” “F— Trump,” “F— Strickland” (in reference to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland), “Eat The Rich,” “Abolish ICE,” “End Homelessness,” and other slogans.

Where the vandals chose to place the graffiti was also especially damaging. Along with the sidewalk along the Graceland property, the graffiti was found on the wall where Elvis fans from all around the world annually sign their name as part of the “Candlelight Vigil,” which happened recently on August 15th.

The Levitt Shell is a historical marker built in 1936 as part of a Depression-era Work Progress initiative, and was the first place Elvis performed publicly in 1954. “Our margins are tight and we long to be back on the lawn with ALL of Memphis, but now we have to use our limited and reduced funds to pay to repair our stage,” said Executive Director of the venue, Natalie Wilson. “Being a historic landmark, it’s not just slapping paint over it. We have to be very careful in the way we remove it. It’s very expensive and not easy to do.” 

Cleaning the graffiti from the “I (Heart) Memphis” mural is also problematic. Painted by artist Brandon Marshall, the mural was commissioned by the UrbanArt Commission and Memphis Tourism as part of a series of Memphis-boosting public artworks.

“We want to be part of the conversation that helps heal our city,” Natalie Wilson says. “We want to see change happen. But how do we talk together, how do we ensure that the messages we provide are productive? This isn’t productive. People are trying to speak, and I get that, but we’ve got to come up with a better way.”

Music venues and landmarks have been hit especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, being some of the first locations to be closed down, and some of the last to be allowed to open, with many remaining shuttered, some of which have already gone out-of-business, and many others on the brink.

On Tuesday evening, more than 1,500 music venues across North America lit themselves up in red from 9 p.m. to midnight to promote the Restart Act, which is a bipartisan bill hoping to give relief to music venues struggling to stay afloat. Some estimates have it as high as 90% of U.S. music venues failing eventually without financial relief. Multiple music venues have also been damaged or looted in protests and riots that regularly occur in downtown areas where music venues are located.

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