Graffiti gives Deep Ellum life


Painting in Dallas, Texas (Photo by Abigail Thomas)

Abigail Thomas, Photo Editor

     Deep Ellum, a haven for jazz music since the 1920s and infused with history dating back to the 1870s, is still known for its flourishing nightlife and the graffiti murals that pay tribute to the progress the neighborhood has made over the last 50 years.

    Established in 1873, Deep Ellum, originally pronounced ‘Deep Elm’ as in the street, before early residents settled there, has been known for its historical significance and the legacy famous inventors have left there. For example, in 1888 Robert S. Munger built his first cotton gin factory, the Continental Gin factory, along Elm Street and Trunk Avenue. Henry Ford in 1914, even chose Deep Ellum as a home to one of his automobile plants, as stated by Deep Ellum Texas.

    While it is immersed with historical events, its main claim to fame is its music nightlife and it being a hotbed for graffiti artists. The music scene has been alive in Deep Ellum since the 1920s when jazz and blues came in full bloom. It has hosted jazz legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Texas Bill Day, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Alex Moore, according to Deep Ellum Texas.

    Around the 1950s, the music scene was put on hold because the neighborhood was deteriorating. Businesses closed and many residents moved out to the suburbs. It was reignited in the 1980s and contributed to the launching of local bands like Old 97s, Toadies, Tripping Daisy and countless other bands. In the 1990s, the venue Trees opened up and became the favorite place to view bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead before they became famous. When other venues started opening up also, it started attracting bands from all over the world.

    Thanks to Scott Rohrman, owner of 42 Real Estate, Deep Ellum became a breeding ground for talented graffiti artists. In 2012 when he started buying properties, 39 in total, he fell in love with the neighborhood and wanted to keep the soul in it, according to the Dallas Morning News.          

    To do this, he created the 42 Murals Project in 2015. It is 42 murals on 53 bare walls of the 39 buildings owned by Rohrman. He commissioned artists from all over the world to paint, starting with Adrian Torres, a painter from Spain who created the mural titled ‘Deep Ellumphants’. The murals are located in various locations all across the neighborhood. The 42 Murals Project generated a stronger community spirit and helped paint the neighborhood in an electric and edgy light rather than dangerous and dirty.

    The murals have become so much of a tourist attraction that 34-year-old, self taught painter Jerod “DTOX” Davies started offering graffiti tours to explain the terminology and techniques of the aerosol art, according to the Dallas Morning News. He charges his clients $40 for an 80 minute tour of the murals followed by a lesson in aerosol stenciling.

    There is no theme or coherence between any of the murals. Rohrman and his team picked artists and their submissions based on whether they liked them or not. Anyone could submit an application online to paint a mural. The artists’ talents range from novice to expert. Rohrman’s goal was to find people who could capture the feeling of Deep Ellum and magnify the essence of what he saw and felt in the neighborhood. Over 200 applications were submitted and of the 42 people selected one was a 14-year-girl and another was a 60-year-old grandmother both of which have never painted murals before, as stated by the Dallas Morning News.

    It is also beneficial for the artists that do get picked to paint their murals. Not only is their work seen by the entire neighborhood, it is also put on the official 42 Murals website for the entire world to see. Exposure of any kind is exceptionally favorable for artists of any skill level. The artists also have the opportunity to tag their work with their Twitter or Instagram domain to further display their other works of art. Each artist also earns a commission.

    Deep Ellum is a representation of the past intermingling with the present. These once bare brick and weathered walls, now alive with color, are paying tribute to the progress the neighborhood has made over the last 50 years. Rohrman continues to keep the 42 Mural Project alive in 2017 by continuing to accept submissions from artists with any range of talent, age, or experience, to paint murals ranging in sizes from six by six feet to 20 by 30 feet. The heritage of Deep Ellum’s rich history in inventions and music accompanied by new developments in music and arts demonstrates the evolution of its ever changing legacy.