Local artist makes his mark on The Alley

September 18, 2020 chris
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Photo: Pictured above, artist Tanner Dixon (left) and his wife Kaitlyn collaborate on murals at The Venue.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

As the excitement of the Gadsden Mall’s latest entertainment venue brews, one local artist is doing his part to contribute to the venture’s success.

Gadsden graffiti artist Tanner Dixon makes his mark on The Alley, one can of spray paint at a time.

“As cheesy of an answer as it is, art influences me on a daily basis,” said Dixon. “I’m fortunate enough to work in the art and design world so I’m always seeing new work that might change my perspective on how I approach my own work. For me it’s not something I can really pinpoint an exact moment [of when it influences me], and it isn’t something I can turn off.”

Dixon does not recall an “ah-ha” moment when his love for art clicked, but his admiration for artwork developed over time. He remembers discovering cool artwork in cartoons, comics and video games and checking out drawing books from the school library to trace images. Though he started drawing his classmates’ names in a “graffiti” style at the age of 10 or 11 (and selling his drawings for 50 cents a piece), Dixon’s interest in art laid dormant while his focus shifted to sports.

At 19, art reentered his life.

“I was really bored in my freshman classes when I started college, and would draw in class all the time,” said Dixon. “A girl in one of my classes leaned over one day and said that she liked me drawing, and that I should consider going into graphic design. That kind of lined up at the time with my wife, Kaitlyn, telling me that I should think about pursuing art instead of plant sciences, which is what I originally wanted to do in school. So, from then on, I started taking my drawings and paintings more seriously.”

Dixon cannot claim a definite genre of art as his favorite. A freelance graphic designer and mural artist, he works in the Jacksonville State University print shop and is surrounded by artwork daily. From logo and T-shirt design to graphite and charcoal drawings, he appreciates a range of disciplines and talents. But his relationship with graffiti – the artwork featured in The Alley – is rooted in his childhood.

“When I was a kid, there was a skateboarding game called Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 that had a ‘tagging’ feature in the game,” said Dixon. “After seeing that in the game, I thought that it was really cool and tried to (very poorly) draw it. Later, I found videos on YouTube of people painting walls and trains and that kind of hooked me. Seeing the quality of work that people could achieve with a spray can blew my mind, and I wanted to be able to get to that level.”

Artists have analyzed the writing on the wall for centuries. From cave drawings to poems painted on buildings in Ancient Rome and Greece, to the outburst of urban artwork that would become coined as “graffiti,” the liberty and excitement of surface-art takes root nationwide.

In 1965, 12-year-old Philadelphia artist Darryl “Cornbread” McCray began spray painting his name (or “tag”) on walls as a similar movement surged throughout New York City. Today, artists express themselves through graffiti artwork worldwide, with creative personas like Bristol, England’s anonymous Banksy raising to high acclaim for satirical street art.

Dixon finds the complexities of graffiti captivating. He described how through style and distortion, letters can transform into new and unique versions of their original forms without becoming completely unrecognizable. Dixon noted that an “R” is always an “R” regardless of how the artist portrays the letter. This ungoverned method of art pours into an aspect of graffiti Dixon relishes: the freedom of expression the artwork gives, and its constant power to generate fresh, creative ideas.

“Graffiti, although having been around since the late 1960s, is still an extremely young art form when compared to drawing, sculpture and traditional painting,” said Dixon. “We are still learning new things about graffiti and the limits that can be pushed and what can be achieved. There are artists out there doing 30-foot-tall photo-realistic portraits, or painting the entire side of a train car with their name styled after an Iron Maiden album cover. It’s ridiculous and addicting.”

For those interested in modern graffiti, Dixon recommended researching artists like DAIM, Odeith and SOFLES. He also acknowledged the controversy that has followed graffiti in the past and offered a few words of advice to other artists.

“Although graffiti at its core is a mostly illegal art form, I don’t condone or recommend doing illegal graffiti,” said Dixon. “Do it in the safety of your home or on a canvas. Keep it safe and enjoy yourself.”

Dixon’s creative process typically begins with pencil and paper. He sits down and sketches out the word he is working with, trying out multiple styles. When working with clients, he gives them options to choose from a number of letter styles and in his own work he selects whichever version he likes best. While painting on the wall, he often makes changes frequently and adjusts his blueprint to fit the space. Though he generally envisions the color scheme he wants to achieve before painting, most of his color choices are improvised. Dixon noted that he only likes having a rigid plan for his lettering – everything else comes together as the mural progresses.

“In my personal work, I like having the ability to make whatever I want to make,” said Dixon. “Having something where I have absolutely no one to answer to [is fun]. If I’m with what I make, then I can show it off and try to make it into something. If I don’t like it, I can trash it and move on. When I’m working on a commission for a client, I enjoy the challenge of trying to create something that I can be happy with as an artist and giving my client something that they enjoy. Bouncing ideas back and forth, getting a final product to a client and having them be satisfied is always fun.”

Dixon’s adventure towards The Alley began around six years ago, when his uncle Butch hired him to paint the entrance of the Etowah County Alternative School. One day, a woman drove past the building and found herself impressed with Dixon’s artwork – so impressed, that she hired him for an up-and-coming business venture at 100 Thomas Drive in Gadsden. That woman was Bethanne Mashburn, who at the time was in the process of developing The Factory. Since that moment, Dixon and Mashburn have developed a successful working partnership to produce iconic artwork and entertainment in both Gadsden and The Factory location in Gulf Shores.

With a history of creative brainstorming and incredible projects between them, when Mashburn began construction for The Alley, she knew who to call.

“Working with Bethanne has always been fun because of the energy she brings to the projects,” said Dixon. “She gives me a ton of creative freedom. There’s always a general idea, then she just turns me and my wife (and assistant) loose. This project specifically has been a lot of space to cover and has been a lot of fun to work on.”

Mashburn gave Dixon a general idea of her concept for The Alley walls before he began painting. She envisioned a weathered city alleyway blasted with years and years of graffiti, adding to the urban-oasis juxtaposition that filters throughout the building. While one person creating years’ worth of art in a few days could prove challenging, Dixon rose to the occasion.

He and his wife Kaitlyn, an unstoppable team, collaborated to develop a range of styles, images and slogans spread across vast surfaces. Bold and vibrant colors compliment each other on The Alley’s walls without appearing planned or intentional, while overlapping images bleed through layers of paint to create the feel of multiple artists adopting the same canvas throughout time.

Together, Dixon and Kaitlyn channeled four hands into many brilliantly producing eye-catching murals peppered with inside jokes and significant slogans. Dixon and Kaitlyn even featured their initials and the names of their children into his work, adding meaningful touches along the way.

“I just thought about the final product and the effect that I wanted to achieve,” said Dixon. “The nature of the project allowed me to work with different styles and words that I normally don’t do, and leant a lot of freedom to what I could try. If something didn’t work, I could just cover it up with something else.”

Dixon’s artwork at The Alley serves as a bridge between two worlds, blending the past with the present to create something unique and unforgettable. Though he considers his work at The Alley background pieces, his efforts reinforce the urban magic of the venue’s atmosphere, bringing the highly-anticipated attraction one mural closer to completion.

“I’m hoping that it will provide a cool atmosphere for patrons,” said Dixon. “The work that is being done and the vision that Bethanne has for The Alley is really awesome. I also hope to see lots of pictures of people with my work. It always pumps me up a little bit to see people enjoying my work. I just hope to continue pushing my mural work further and continue creating work that people enjoy at a higher quality than what I’m at now.”

For more information on Dixon’s artwork, find Tanner Dixon on Facebook, twitter (@taperisms) or email him at tdixonart@yahoo.com.