Uptown & The Pinch

Litter, Landfills, and Illegal Dumping: New murals tell the story in Uptown and Frayser

Murals are cropping up all over Memphis. Uptown and Frayser have their fair share, but their newest murals are art with a purpose.

They serve to educate the viewer on one of the communities' most visible problems–litter.

The pieces are part of the Art + Environment Initiative to raise awareness of long-standing environmental concerns in Memphis neighborhoods through public art. UrbanArt Commission launched the program in 2018 with a $100,000 capacity-building grant from Mural Arts Institute.

“We want people to understand the ways artists and the arts can be beneficial to initiatives focused on combating serious issues," said Brett Hanover, program manager for UAC.

Muralist and graphic designer Khara Woods worked with community members in Uptown to shape her concept for a mural. The finished piece highlights litter that makes its way from Uptown's storm basin to the Mississippi River system. (Submitted) While the artists were ultimately in control of the creative outcome, muralists Khara Woods and Jamond Bullock engaged residents in the process and planning through public events, focus groups, one-on-one meetings, and surveys. 

“It's important that communities are part of the process from start to finish because people value public art in their neighborhoods when they have a voice or even a hand in its creation,” says Bullock.

Hanover said UAC's newest strategic plan centers community voices in their work.

"We want to position UAC as a community organization, less siloed in a fine arts space," said Hanover.

RELATED: Art installations in Frayser, Orange Mound & Uptown to be designed by community members

Bullock's Frayser mural, "Stand Up for Our Streets," was completed in July. It focuses on main concerns raised by residents, namely the dumping of tires, furniture, and mattresses along curbs, in vacant lots and fields, and in front of people’s homes.

More recently, UAC held a dedication for Woods' Uptown mural, titled "Basin Portraits," on October 18. Dozens turned out for the event, which was free to the public. It included a speech from Alvin Peterson, Memphis Area Transit Authority's chief operating officer, on MATA's upcoming green initiatives.

Susannah Barton and Sydney Sepulveda with the Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Janet Boscarino of Clean Memphis provided feedback and consultation for the murals. Both partners were present at the October debut.

Clean Memphis shared a biodegradability chart with Woods that she included in her mural's key. At the dedication, Woods heard attendees discussing their shock when they learned how long it takes certain materials to break down, if at all.

“Public art is valuable because of the education it provides,” said Woods.

The Frayser Art and Environment mural by artist Jamond Bullock focuses on illegal dumping. It's located on the side of Superlo Foods on N. Watkins St. The side of the building is a frequent site of dumping, specifically discarded tires. (Cole Bradley)


Bullock's “Stand Up for Our Streets," is a 6,000-square-foot comment on environmental justice that highlights the specific issues expressed by Frayser residents. It's painted on the side of the Superlo Foods at 3327 North Watkins Street.

The words "NO LANDFILL ZONE" sit at the mural's center, representing the community's fights against the siting of several landfills.

Related: "Nutbush fights proposed landfill near homes, schools and Wolf River"

A stack of tires represents illegal dumping. There are several illegally discarded tires visible from the mural's location. The piece also depicts residents cleaning up their neighborhood and passing that passion on to the next generation.

Bullock grew up in Frayser and sought the input of community leaders and other residents to develop the concept. Through a series of workshops representatives from the Frayser CDC, Memphis Public Libraries' Frayser branch, Girls, Inc., and youth from area high schools contributed their ideas.

Bullock also organized community cleanup days, collected tires, and hosted a walk/run trash collecting event.

"Basin Portraits" by muralist Khara Woods includes a description of the project, a key for deciphering the pictographs in the work, and a lesson on how long specific materials take to biodegrade. (Cole Bradley)


Adorning a vacant building beside Memphis Area Transit Authority’s trolley facility on North Main Street, "Basin Portraits” overlooks a water retention basin that feeds into the Mississippi River system.

The basin and its connected storm drains are man-made channels containing the Bayou Gayoso, which once cut a wider, swampier course through Uptown and The Pinch.

In heavy rains, the basin now carries copious amounts of modern-day trash into the river. Storm water runoff is a major contributor to waterway pollution.

“[Woods] collected data on the types of litter that found their way into the neighborhood watershed and found a way to creatively visualize this data based on her own artistic style, as a brightly-colored geometric pictograph,” said Hanover. 

That data was represented as color-coded water droplets with symbols inside to represent categories and sub-categories of litter. 

“These icons represent the types of litter I counted during the data collection phase of my project. I counted plastic, paper, styrofoam, glass, and I included a catchall category,” said Woods.

Wooden stencils were install in 7-by-9-foot grids with 600 water droplets covering the three-story structure. A key explains the mural's coding system and outlines Woods' process, as well as the importance of responsible waste management. 

While Memphis is far from the Atlantic, everything that hits the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico eventually finds the ocean. From industrial factories and farms to oil poured down storm drains and trash thrown from cars, the combined effect is devastating to our oceans' water, plants, and animals that we rely on for food, water cycles, climate stability, and much more.

Woods' planning process included embedding in Uptown to talk to residents about its specific environmental issues. She visited neighborhood anchors like community centers and restaurants. She attended events including youth basketball games, a litter cleanup, and a community dinner. 

She asked residents about the impact of litter in Uptown, sources of neighborhood pride, and what they do as individuals to keep the community clean.

“I had people fill out questionnaires online and in-person. I met with stakeholders–small business owners, researchers, city officials–in the neighborhood and contacted people by email to tell them about the project and get their thoughts on how [it] could be most successful,” said Woods, who also works as a graphic artist.

From there she plotted the concept for the work.

Local eatery The Office @ Uptown served as an unofficial headquarters for the project and regular meeting place for Woods and residents.

Related: "Soup, sandwich and a side of community at The Office @ Uptown cafe"
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Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.