Memphis by Hand: Creative Small-Business Advertising

Memphis, Tennessee
Published July 7, 2008
In these photographs, taken between 2005 and 2008, Amie Vanderford samples hand-painted, commercial signs in Memphis neighborhoods. Vibrant and changing markers on the cityscape, these signs situate neighborhood identity, from historically African American Orange Mound, to gentrifying areas such as Uptown and Midtown, and tourist destinations in Whitehaven and Soulsville.

Photo Essay

Map of Memphis neighborhoods
Map of Memphis Neighborhoods
(Base Map Data: US Census Bureau)

Photographer's Statement

While I didn't seek out hand-painted signs, I noticed their emergence as a pattern in my photo travelogue of Memphis shortly after I moved here in 2004. I felt drawn to their imperfect beauty. In a city of much poverty, racism, and crime, the sheer volume of these colorful hand-painted signs speaks of persistent creativity and the spirit of small business. The sheer volume of these signs in the city affirms the popularity of this mode of expression and suggests that small businesses continue to function as cultural landmarks at the center of neighborhood geography, despite the encroachments of corporate chains and developer-planned communities. Owners often collaborate with local artists, as in the case of the mural at Hawk's Bar & Grill, painted by James "Brick" Brigance. A native of Orange Mound, Brigance adorned many neighborhood buildings with hand-stenciled and freehand advertising for local businesses. Such work suggests that small-business advertising can be a collective endeavor, relying on neighborhood talent and artistic vision.

About the Photographer

Amie Vanderford is a freelance photographer currently living in Memphis and working primarily in the non-profit sector. Vanderford's work has been featured in a wide range of publications, silent auctions for charity, and exhibits including the "Women in Photography 20th Anniversary Tea Time Exhibit," "photo l.a. 2002" and "Photo Impact" in Los Angeles, and a two-woman exhibit at the Loft Gallery in San Francisco. In 2006 a limited-edition book of her Memphis photographs was sold at Burke's Book Store. 2008 finds Amie working on the photo-per-day "Memphis Project 366," in which she captures hidden and overlooked city scenes.


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