Cultural influence, one spray can at a time
If you’ve driven anywhere in Nashville lately, there’s a very good chance you’ve encountered the work of Eastside Murals. The Stella Artois mural downtown? That’s Eastside. The tomatoes below Pomodoro East? Yep, Eastside. The Green Fleet Bikes building on Jefferson St.? Well, you get it.
A mural craze has clearly swept Nashville over the last couple of years, and the duo of Nashville natives Ian Lawrence and Sterling Goller-Brown has been at the very front of it. The two are the founders (and only employees) of Eastside Murals, a company that, in some ways, has been a couple decades in the making. “We grew up together, just being kids, learning how to skateboard together, getting interested in graffiti, just normal teenage stuff,” Goller-Brown says. “With the graffiti background, we were just playing around and one day we were finally like, ‘Let’s paint a mural.’ ”
Both Lawrence and Goller-Brown have backgrounds that include arts training, but they learned most of what they know about making murals from their time exploring graffiti as kids. Last year, Lawrence graduated from The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in graphic design. Goller- Brown studied painting at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Although the two have collaborated on and off since those heady days as young graffiti artists, Lawrence and Goller-Brown started working together in a professional capacity in 2013. After painting the tomato mural at Pomodoro, calls for new commissions began coming in and, with the exception of some time off to finish school, the duo hasn’t stopped painting since.
“The first real one we got together on, we were trying to figure out how to start a mural project and Tomato [Art] Fest was coming up and we were like, ‘Well, we’ll just piggyback off of Tomato Fest and use it to get a bunch of attention,’ ” Goller-Brown says. “We painted a piece on Porter Road. [Ian’s] dad works for the company that owns the building — underneath Pomodoro Restaurant, basically. It’s tomatoes that are breaking up the wall. It was an easy way to get a bunch of attention really quickly. And it worked. We got other jobs from doing that one — pretty small stuff, small budgets.”
“Yeah, we just put our number on that one,” Lawrence adds. “I don’t think we had a website or anything at that point. That’s how we got the Lincoln job. That was our first really big job. It just kind of snowballed from that basically. We did that one for free, just for fun.”
With the “Lincoln” job, Lawrence is referencing a mural commissioned by Lincoln College of Technology in 2014. The mural shows two brightly rendered cars — one classic, one modern — welded together and bursting through a cinder block wall. Both Lawrence and Goller-Brown still reference that piece as one of their favorite projects together.
The pair recently graduated from working out of Goller-Brown’s garage to renting a small space just off Nolensville Pike. The one-room studio houses a computer, a couple of chairs, a futon, and lots of paint. Above a wall of milk crates stacked with spray paint cans is a colorful painted logo that reads “Out East Boys,” which the two painted together using brushes. In one corner sits a half-finished oil painting — a landscape — by Goller-Brown.
A simple space is all the pair needs. They spend the vast majority of their time out working on an ever-growing list of commissioned jobs. Last summer, Eastside Murals got so many requests from potential clients that, for the first time in their professional career, they had to start telling people no.
“Last summer it just exploded,” Lawrence says. “We didn’t have time for all the projects we had to do. We were telling people we couldn’t do it, basically, or that we would have to do it months from now.”
Despite the deluge of work, Lawrence and Goller-Brown don’t hire any other artists to help them paint murals — with their long history of friendship and shared artistic vision, they aren’t ready to bring anyone else into the fold just yet. They do hire out friends for sign painting, though, which often keeps them just as busy as their mural work.
“We were hiring our friends when we were really slammed with projects, mostly for sign painting stuff,” Lawrence says of summer 2017. “For logos and stuff, we hire friends that we went to school with.”
“We use all spray paint on the big stuff,” Goller-Brown adds. “The guys that we hire are good with brushes, but not experienced with spray paint.”
Getting good with a spray can requires a lot of practice, and practice often includes getting out and finding any canvas you can. Their teenage days painting fences and sheds may have seemed like goofing off at the time, but all those hours with spray cans in hand built the foundation for what would eventually become the duo’s livelihood.
“Graffiti is how we learned how to use a spray can,” Goller-Brown says. “Even though it wasn’t anything like what we’re doing now, that’s basically what it all led to. That’s how I got interested in art in general.”
That interest in art would eventually lead Goller-Brown to pursue a degree in painting at UTK. “I was undecided, just doing graffiti and taking core classes,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’ll take a painting class.’ I also had a couple friends already deciding to do art.
“I learned how to use oil paints in college, which was useful. I don’t really do much of that kind of stuff anymore. I’ll use oils sometimes in certain pieces, but I’ll use them more like I would a spray can. It taught me studio practice. Besides that, the stuff we do now is all selftaught or learned from working for another sign painter or mural artist.”
Lawrence’s time studying graphic design didn’t influence his actual painting, but he has found that his new graphic design skills come in handy when plotting the initial stages of a new project. “I learned about typography, and we use that a lot,” he says. “The technical skills I learned in the Adobe programs like Photoshop — that’s helped a lot with our design process.”
Coming up with design concepts is often one of the more enjoyable aspects of the process for Eastside, particularly when clients allow them to take the lead creatively. For example, Pabst Blue Ribbon hired the duo to paint a mural on East Nashville bar The Cobra, giving them free rein to do as they pleased so long as one of PBR’s iconic cans made an appearance; Lawrence now cites that mural as his favorite project to date.
“Usually for bigger clients it’s hard to have creative direction, but we basically designed the whole thing,” he says. “We included a can of PBR, but I don’t think it took away from the mural. It was fun to paint and wasn’t corny like a lot of stuff we’re asked to do.”
“If it gets super corporate, it can very easily be more about the corporation than the art,” Goller-Brown says. “But they let us run with that one.”
The art always comes first for Lawrence and Goller-Brown, and when clients come to them with uninspired ideas, they do their best to steer them in a more artistic direction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“A lot of times, there will be some agency that the client is hiring to find us, then we’re dealing with them but they’re also dealing with the client, so there’s weird communication,” Lawrence says.
“Everybody that wants a mural now wants the Nashville skyline,” Goller-Brown says, laughing. “There are already like 10 murals like that in the city. If you want to see the skyline, just look downtown at the skyline. We’ve had clients that are based downtown ask us for a downtown Nashville skyline.”
For Goller-Brown, the project he’s most proud of is the “Galactic Gardens” mural on the side of the Adventure Science Center building. The massive piece shows vibrant wildflowers popping out of a cosmic backdrop and was commissioned to advertise the center’s outdoor learning center of the same name. And while the flowers in the mural are decidedly fake, the pair did have to deal with some very real, very aggressive insects to get the project done.
“For that one, we were painting on this giant wall that also had a huge air intake vent and we found out the first day that there were several wasp nests in the vents,” Lawrence says, laughing.
“Several nests meaning hundreds of wasps,” Goller-Brown adds.
“The whole time, we were up in this lift 30 feet in the air batting down wasps,” Lawrence continues. “I got stung once. We probably killed like 50 wasps. We were literally spraying them with spray paint.”
Despite the occasional difficult client or wasp infestation, Lawrence and Goller-Brown deeply love what they do through Eastside Murals and take pride in creating public art for the city they care about. Each sees mural painting as not just a recently trendy form of advertising, but as a means to visibly improving their community. They cite the dragon mural (which, for the record, they didn’t paint) and adjacent “Dragon Park” in Hillsboro Village as a prime example of the kind of artwork that can add value and culture to a neighborhood.
“It’s the artists designing these things that create culture in a city,” Goller-Brown says. “Whoever designed the Batman Building, that wasn’t their intent to make it look like Batman, but it’s a huge icon in Nashville now. The things that really change a city and redefine it might not have anything to do with the city at first. So that’s what we’re trying to do, put a little spin on it and put our creative influence on the city.”
Instagram-ready murals — like international street artist Kelsey Montague’s infamous “What Lifts You” mural (colloquially known as “the wings”) in the Gulch — have grown exponentially in popularity in recent years, which Lawrence and Goller-Brown see as a double- edged sword. On one hand, their business has grown accordingly. On the other, some of the works to come out of this craze don’t have the artistic staying power of, say, the Hillsboro Village dragon.
“Obviously, she was going for something that they would interact with, and that’s happened,” Lawrence says of Montague. “But it seems weird for a mural to just be something to pose in front of rather than something to actually look at and appreciate.”
Eastside murals may not attract legions of millennial women eager for photo ops, but that was never their mission. And with a busier schedule than they’ve ever had, it’s clear that their approach to public art is working pretty well for them, hashtags be damned.
“Really, it’s a direct form of change,” Goller- Brown says. “It’s such a visible thing. One day there’s a blank wall. Overnight this crazy thing pops up. People are going to react to that way more than a building taking two years to build. Then it’s slowly incorporated into the community. It’s a more effective way to influence the place that we live.”
Lawrence sums up Eastside Mural’s laidback attitude toward its mission this way: “Even if we just make someone’s boring commute a little better, that’s good with us.”