“I met this older Muslim,” Ashshahid Muhammad says. “He gave me a good example of what a Muslim should be. He said if you look at the moon or the sun, that’s a true Muslim. The moon and the sun never get out of their natural place. They never refuse to be what they were created to be. The sun never misses a beat. It always rises on time and always sets on time.”
The road to Muhammad’s discovery of his “natural place” as an artist and his fealty to his true nature was a long and perilous journey. A native of Memphis, Muhammad grew up in the Bluff City’s poorest and roughest neighborhoods, surrounded by crushing poverty and the dangerous life of the streets. “I would go back and forth to school, and every day I saw gangs, people selling drugs, and prostitutes,” he says. “I didn’t know what they were doing, but I was curious. It seemed to me everybody worshipped the drug dealers. I would see guys 10 years old who were selling crack and had brand new clothes on. So whatever they were doing, that’s what I wanted to be.
“I didn’t like school because I didn’t fit in,” he continues. “I would see other kids whose mother or dad would drive up and drop them off at school, and I didn’t have that. I didn’t know how to read, so when a teacher would have each student read,and it would come to me, I would start a fight or do something to get sent to the office. I preferred a paddling.
“When I was around 12, my mother was going to nursing school, and she would work the night shift. She would call around 10 o’clock, and I would tell her I was going to bed. My little brother was five years younger than me and real quiet. I would leave him in the house and go out and run the streets. That’s when I started breaking into drink machines, stealing cars, breaking into schools — I was just bad. I was going in and out of juvenile, and I started hanging and sleeping in crack houses and selling crack.”
Muhammad’s crimes quickly escalated and reached a turning point when he became entangled in a failed drug deal and was accused of armed robbery. Convicted at the age of 13, he received an eight-year sentence.
“There was a lot of fighting in juvenile, so it was on lockdown most of the time,” he recalls. “I spent long days in my cell with only my cellmate for company. I learned how to read. My mother brought me magazines and a dictionary, and when I was in my cell with my buddy, if I didn’t know a word, I could ask him. The more I read, the faster I got.”
Muhammad’s time in prison also led to other discoveries. “I started drawing,” he says. “I learned how to sketch. I would sketch things I saw and draw graffiti designs. The Simpsons had just come out, and I loved to draw Bart Simpson and his family.”
In addition to his passion for art, Muhammad embarked on a spiritual journey of discovery. “My mother was a Christian,” he says, “but parts of my family were Muslim. When I was little, I didn’t like going to church, but I would go if I was staying with my grandmother. If I was staying with my uncle, I would go to mosque. My mother would read the Bible and the Koran, and she always said you should be open-minded. When I went to jail, I had a Bible and a Koran, and I read both.
“When I was about 17 and a half, they moved me from juvenile to general population. It was different. It was serious. I hung around Muslims and went to mosque. I wanted to talk it, but I didn’t want to walk it, and there were times when I would lose interest. In jail, you can’t be yourself. You can’t show weakness. You put these walls up and don’t let nobody in.”
Paroled in 1995 at the age of 19, Muhammad left jail with the desire to do the right thing, but the reality of the outside world was a challenge. “When I got out of jail, I said to myself, ‘No matter what, I’m going to go to school, get a job and do this and do that,’” he says. “I went back to my momma’s house and everything was different. She was working as a nurse. I remember sitting at the table with my mother and my brother, and I was crying. I didn’t know what to say to them. When I went in, my friends were riding bikes and skateboards; when I got out, my friends had cars and apartments and babies.”
Within weeks, Muhammad had fallen in with old friends and returned to street life — dealing in cocaine and crack. In a matter of months, he was moving up the ladder of dealers, and enjoying the money, cars, clothes, and prestige that came with that, while ignoring the dangers, even after competing dealers and gang members began to target him.
“I was so blind I didn’t see that I had my momma’s life in danger,” he says. “I had thousands and thousands of dollars stashed in her home. They shot up her house. I wasn’t there, but her and my brother were hiding under the bed.” The violence caught up with Muhammad on May 25, 1997, when he stopped at a neighborhood convenience store for some beer and members of a rival gang pulled up beside his SUV.
“They shot seven or eight times, and then they pulled off,” Muhammad says. “My friend’s window was down. They shot and hit him, and they hit me. My friend fell, and he was covered in blood. I remember trying to wipe the blood off the window. I grabbed my gun, and I threw it because I knew the police were coming. I fell on the ground, and all I was saying was, ‘God, don’t let me die.’ I heard the music playing, but I also heard something saying to me, ‘I got you.’ I remember saying to God, ‘If you get me out of this, I’m done.’” Both Muhammad and his friend survived multiple gunshot wounds, but their injuries had changed everything.
“I remember going home, unwrapping my bandages, and there was nothing there,” he says. “My eye was gone. All the cars, the clothes, the money, the dope — I couldn’t take all of that and get my eye back.
“I started smoking crack and shooting heroin. I had smoked weed and drank, but I never did the harder drugs. When my friend got out of the hospital, I hadn’t seen him in six months. All my other friends were saying he was cool, meaning he was still alive. But when I finally saw him, he was in a wheel chair, he was blind in one eye, he couldn’t move one arm and he was crippled. He had been a good basketball player. He wasn’t no bad dude. All he had talked about was going to pro.”
Muhammad’s drug use soon led to homelessness and a downward spiral of petty crimes to stay alive and supply his habits. He eventually left Memphis and began traveling the U.S., jumping freight trains or sneaking onto cross-country buses.
“I was living on the streets,” he says, “sleeping on benches in parks or by churches in downtown areas because they are safe. I didn’t shave. I didn’t take baths. I got locked up all the time. I was in psych wards, and I once got locked up on Ryker’s Island for two weeks on a minor charge. I was running all the time. I went to New York, Chicago, Miami, Washington, D.C., Philly, and more. I didn’t realize I was just running.” Although Muhammad didn’t know what he was running from, he eventually discovered a goal to run toward.
“When I started traveling, I saw artists,” he says. “In New York at the Port Authority, there were a whole lot of artists lined up — drawing, painting, hustling their work. I was like, man, this is what I need to do. I had found an identity. I was an artist.
“I started hanging around artists and I would draw and draw and draw. I would get 45 days or whatever and that’s how I spent my time — drawing, because my mind was free. People would see my drawings and say, ‘Why are you locked up? What’s wrong with you?’ I wouldn’t tell them I was on crack; that I was caught up in a living hell.
“I became known for this art bag I carried that had hundreds of pictures that I drew. I would get sober for six or seven months, but I would go back to doing dumb stuff. I would say, ‘When I get out this time, I ain’t going to do no drugs,’ and then as soon as they would let me out, I’d go get high, and all the art I drew would be in some bushes somewhere.”
For over a decade, Muhammad found himself locked in a cycle of sobriety and addiction, artistic ambitions and homeless destitution. In 2011, after countless scrapes with the law, short jail sentences, and wandering across the U.S., he found his way to Nashville’s Room in the Inn shelter.
“I joined the program at Room at the Inn,” he says. “I said everything that sounds good, like all the rest of the rehabs — I want to go to school, get my GED, and go to college, but I saw the love there. They had all these resources. You could really come up there.”
“I had never been sober over 15 months,” he says. “I had to look myself in a mirror and say, ‘You’re a coward.’ I was running from life. I was spending all my money getting high and jumping trains to run from life. I kept reliving the moment I was shot. I kept saying if only I had ducked, and I had to learn to let that go. It happened and nothing could change that.”
After enrolling in Tennessee College of Applied Technology’s adult-education GED preparation program, Muhammad secured his GED and then applied for the Nossi College of Art’s Adult Education Scholarship program.
“My mind kept telling me I wouldn’t make it, but I showed up and did my part, and everything followed through,” he says. “When they told me I’d been accepted, I called my momma, and she said, ‘That’s a miracle!’ I’ve been there a year now, and I’m making straight As. People come to me and say I’m an inspiration to them!”
Although most of Muhammad’s work has been in the form of pencil sketches — moments he captures from observations of the world around him, he is now expanding into other media through his classes at Nossi and has self-published his first book. Graffiti Pre-School Comics is the first installment in a series of autobiographical illustrated books.
“It’s a true story to let kids know what happened to me,” Muhammad says. “I wanted to make it look like a kid’s book, and as I get older, the art and characters will become more realistic.”
Muhammad’s artwork isn’t the only way he’s trying to share his life story with children who might be at risk of making the same mistakes. Working with the nonprofit agency Poverty & the Arts, Muhammad regularly visits local schools to talk about art and his experiences.
“We go to different schools, and I bring my portfolio to show,” he explains. “First, I share about my life, and they really get tuned in. A lot of poorer kids think going to jail is cool because they think it will make you tough. We teach and help them draw, and I tell them about my life. I grew up late in life, but it was worth it.” Muhammad also works with Poverty & the Arts to reach out to homeless individuals who have artistic aspirations.
“We meet every Sunday at Turnip Green Creative Reuse — a nonprofit gallery,” he says. “We bring in homeless artists and help them sell their work in the gallery.”
Muhammad currently has work showing at Phat Bites Delicatessen (2730 B Lebanon Pike), and will be opening a show of his work on April 20 at Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge & Gallery (1305 Jefferson Street).
“I love going to school,” Muhammad says. “I love talking to kids. I just try to give back because God saved me to share with people and help people. And not only that, a lot of people don’t know about Islam. When I tell people my name, I can feel the shift in the way they look at me. The violence and terrorism you see on TV isn’t Islam. I have a responsibility to show others what a true Muslim is.
“I’m an artist,” he adds “It’s what God made me to be. Every day when I go out my door, tears come into my eyes. You always say, ‘I’m gonna do that one day,’ and it never comes; but now I’m doing it.”