Fighting Gang Activity with a Paint Brush | Heartland Stories
With gang-related graffiti on the rise in his hometown of Memphis, Gerard Harris decided to take action. But, instead of using a pressure washer, he decided to pick up a paint brush.
“There was graffiti on every block, which I believe can negatively influence a community,” Harris said. “So, I’ve made it my goal to beautify public areas in Memphis that have been marked by graffiti.”
Harris grew up in Grind City, and after a stint as a touring musician, he moved back home about 12 years ago. Now with a family of his own, he began to view the city he knew so well from a different perspective.
“You see kids that need some direction,” Harris said. “As many things as you want to do for children and steer them sometimes, you can’t do it. Maybe you need to put it in a message.”
His first step on this mission started with a simple act—painting over the graffiti on a single wall, one he drove by while taking his kids to school. When the project was all said and done, something incredible happened.
“What I’ve noticed is that in Memphis if you put art on the wall, guys will quit tagging in it,” Harris said. “Every kid should have something beautiful in their life, or they should have a neighborhood that encourages them.”
Harris has carried out his mission throughout Shelby County, and was honored with the Emmet O’Ryan Award in 2018. The award recognizes distinguished visual artists in the Memphis community, and is accompanied by a $10,000 grant from Renasant Bank and ArtsMemphis.
“The grant from Renasant Bank and ArtsMemphis encouraged me to take my art a little bit more seriously because they believed that it was important,” Harris said. “Other than the neighborhood folk I didn’t even think anybody noticed it, so it encouraged me to get better at my skills and just keep going with it.”