Gallatin Pike is gritty, but it's also groovy — and even gorgeous if you know where to look. It's the main vein of the beating heart of one of the city's most dynamic communities, the East Nashville and Inglewood neighborhoods. The pike's used tire shops, fast food chains, vintage boutiques, music venues, bars and markets are as diverse as the neighbors they serve.
The roadside is decorated with hand-painted and vintage signs that speak to its past as well as to the entrepreneurial spirit of the mom-and-pop businesses that call it home. More than its dynamic past or its uncertain future, what catches my attention is the weird beauty of the pike right now, today.
I made the trip up Gallatin Pike — from East Nashville Magnet School to the Madison/Inglewood Market, taking more than 60 photographs.
Here are a 20 of them, and a little bit about why each caught my eye.
Who removed the bug remover? I love the hexagonal blocks here, and the way the curtains match the exterior paint design. Also, nothing speaks to the felt absurdity of the pike like utilitarian labeling on broken things that no longer work. Bug Remover. Thanks anyway.
Walking In Faith
I love this old sign, which features what looks like a random scrap of cutaway board attached to the existing blank of an old metal sign. The church's name is spelled out with what look like the kind of single letters you might purchase at a hardware store. The sign-maker drew a nice straight line to write the Reverend Granberry's name on, adding an arrow to the end incorporating it into the overall design. It's an old, rugged sign, but only one of many pointing the way to houses of worship up and down the street.
I'm familiar with artist Herb Williams' recent work, and when I saw a multichrome deer decorating the outside wall of the Old Made Good vintage shop, I assumed it was a decoration he'd been asked to add. However, I've been told that the artist tagged the shop anonymously. This wolf on the exterior wall at Foobar is also the artist's handiwork. Like the animal glyphs in an ancient European cave, the rainbowed creatures remind us of the past while they move with us into the future, still wild and adorned in splendor.
The King of Hearts
In a standard card deck, he is also known as a Suicide King, as he appears to be driving his own sword through his head. A student of the esoteric might argue that the King of Hearts in symbolically driving a blade through his head to better hear his heart. That's a serious interpretation to consider, but some joker in East Nashville isn't taking the card that seriously. The utility box outside of a Wal-Mart Grocery on Gallatin Road is hosting a perfectly-sized, black-and-white, wheat-pasted poster of a Suicide King of Hearts with the face of comedian Steve Martin — its an amazing likeness considering the crude rendering, the cheap media, the weather. It reminds me of Martin's old arrow-through-the-head-gag. It also reminds me that Gallatin is a wild and crazy pike.
Like any caped crusader worthy of the title, this pint-sized protector's identity — despite my best efforts — remains a black-shrouded secret. I know this little warrior might be a girl smoking a cigarette, dressed in a Batman get-up — an all-seeing-eye in a pyramid pulses black rays that extend to the edge of the poster, coming off as a kind of Masonic flag of Japan. This image is pasted on the doors of the old fire department building near Gallatin Pike and McKennie — a perfect Bat Cave, and much less high profile than the AT&T Building.
Civilizations around the globe share flood mythologies that tell tales of our world underwater. The limestone in the ground all over Nashville was formed from the shells of marine animals that were deposited when this area was submerged beneath a warm shallow sea more than 330 million years ago. I have no idea if there were ever dolphins or sea lions frolicking in the space above our heads, but it's a lovely thought to think when you're stuck in traffic on the pike and wish you could unroll your window and simply swim away.
This plaque was placed beneath the CSX railroad trestle by the Tennessee Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It's easy to miss from the road — only pedestrians can see it. An arrow points the way north on Gallatin road toward the immigrant trail — the colloquial name of Stagecoach Road, which stretched between Knoxville and Nashville. The road became an artery for new settlers moving to Tennessee, and a stretch of it was also part of the Trail of Tears.
Numerous mammoth and mastodon bones have been found in Tennessee, and a saber-toothed tiger skull found downtown gave the Nashville Predators their mascot. This specimen of Elephantus Miniaturum was found outside the entrance of the Live True vintage store — the red cinderblock planters are included here for scale. Subsequent visits to the site have offered no sign of the beast, who has obviously run off with the Porter Road Possum Circus.
The symbol of an open hand with an eyeball embedded in the palm is connected to both Islam and Judaism. The "hamsa" is also known both as the the hand of Fatima (Mohammed's daughter) and the hand of Miriam (Moses' sister). The hamsa was thought to ward off the magical powers of the Evil Eye, and various forms of the symbol are commonly worn as amulets today. One of the earliest occurrences of the symbol is on the Gate of Judgment at the Alhambra, a 14th century Islamic fortress in Southern Spain. The hamsa I photographed in the window at Electric Hand Tattoo looks more like a version from a late 19th century American spiritualism manual. Here, the symbol wards off the malevolent spirit of regrettable tattoo decisions.
Fight For a Spot
This pitiful little dude's story is enhanced by having him speak his heartbroken dialogue against a backdrop of crimson, lace-patterned stencils, evoking creepy/threatening domesticity. This two-dimensional melodrama plays to southbound traffic between Cahal and Straightway, and it reminds me of Tennessee Williams' great, lost, one-act play about East Nashville, Hat on a Hot Chicken Goof.
Spotted Dog Wall
East Nashville — like the rest of the city — is dog crazy. Spot's is a pet supply and dog wash with a handsome little brick and glass storefront on Gallatin Pike. It makes complete sense until you turn down Sharpe Avenue and see the white-with-black-spots Dalmation paint job that decorates the store's north-facing exterior wall. The best part is that there is no additional signage or a logo or some kind of ad for the shop. I'm allergic to dogs — they literally make me sick. But I love this big dog of a wall.
This is It
In David Lynch's film Blue Velvet, Dennis Hopper loads his friends and a kidnapped Kyle MacLachlan into his car for a joyride that ends when Hopper screams out "This is it!" in front of a brothel/bar with a neon sign in the window that reads "THIS IS IT." The former Smitty's Beer Belly bar, Mickey's Tavern has become a clubhouse for the Inglewood neighborhood, but I've never seen any Roy Orbison karaoke there.
This graffiti portrait of a boy wearing a costume bunny head was created by Chicago street artist Left Handed Wave — he signed the piece within the design. Its coincidental resemblance to the Bunny Boy character of Nashville filmmaker Harmony Korine's Gummo makes this image particularly potent. Wave's image also reminds me of the trickster archetype that we associate with the rabbit. Gummo was actually shot in the Nations neighborhood in West Nashville. Even Bunny Boy loves it on the East Side.
The Madison Glass Company has been in business since 1960, and they say they're one of the few places in the Southeast that will re-silver a mirror. They also have a big, bold sign. I love the thoughtful spray painting here, the post that obscures the "O" in "CO" and the Christian cross motif, which plays well off of the red star flourishes added by the artist.
This graffiti painted white-on-red on an exterior wall of Foobar always reads like a short, provocative poem to me. What baby? Who made a baby captain? We must help this baby! The art detective in me has a theory that this triple tag was left by a member of the eponymous New York-based experimental rock band when they played the Foobar Too stage in 2013. Captain Baby the band is the brainchild of former Nashvillian Asher Rogers.
I've always thought of this kingly cartoon character as Little Caesar's much cooler cousin. King Solomon's Gyros' mascot's self-satisfied smile says, "It's good to be king." He snaps his fingers like a '50s hepcat, and his golden crown beats a wreath of laurel leaves all day, any day.
No Profane Language
American Legion Post 82 in Inglewood had its November Turkey Shoot sign on display during a weekday afternoon when I followed their driveway to the building's back entrance. There is a red-white-and-blue bench outside their back door across from the shooting range, where veterans and their families can test their marksmanship every fall to win Thanksgiving turkeys. The sign on the outdoor bulletin board is a polite reminder that barracks language is strictly prohibited in the mixed-company of the range.
You can't spend time any time along Gallatin Road without seeing buildings for sale, buildings for rent, buildings being rehabbed, buildings with signs saying they've been sold. For better and worse, Nashville is a boomtown, and the revival of Nashville's east side is the biggest turnaround we've seen since the rejuvenation of downtown Nashville in the late 1990s. That was way back when west-siders were only tentatively starting to put down roots on that other side of the river.
There is a lot of vintage and hand-painted signage along Gallatin road, but the Turn One sign stands out for the way its name is simply painted over an older sign with no apparent effort to paint-out the old lettering. As it is, the Turn One sign is a kind of visual puzzle — when you can read "Turn One" without squinting, you've had one too many.
Biscuit House Mural
On my trip down Gallatin Pike I spun my truck around a few times to check out a scene or a sign that caught my eye just as I drove past it. I accomplished a 180 by pulling into the parking lot of the Nashville Biscuit House and driving a in circle around the building. I've breakfasted at this joint a handful of times but never noticed the massive mural that decorates the entire back wall of the place. The painting is a picnic scene picturing a diverse group of neighbors dining alfresco at small round tables set up in a grassy yard. I couldn't find a signature or a date on the wall, but the odd appearances of technology in the mural make me think it was painted in the last 10 years — two people are depicted staring at their cell phone screens, and the girl on the left plays the loner at her laptop, missing the party. A motorcycle policeman also appears on the left side of the gathering — comparatively, he's proportioned like a miniature adult, and he reminds me of the depictions of baby Jesus in medieval paintings.
Did you recognize these places on Gallatin Pike?
Below is an interactive map of their locations. To open a larger version of the map in a new window, click here.