If you've walked down the Main Street mall in the past year, you've encountered the work of Eso Tolson. That's his hand-lettering on the banners marking the street.
Or maybe you've seen Tolson, a native of East St. Louis, Illinois, and a Memphis College of Art graduate, at assorted events around town, posted in a corner, completing a quick illustration. Or maybe you own one of his "Embrace Your Inner Memphis" graphic tees.
Make note of the phrase "Embrace Your Inner Memphis" — that's exactly what the artist does in "Spectacular Vernacular," currently showing at the Memphis Slim House. Each piece features Tolson's interpretation of a Memphis colloquialism accompanied by a definition and an example in smaller, standard text.
Flyer: What prompted you to do an exhibit featuring Memphis slang?
Tolson: I've always been intrigued with phrases and sayings. I'm not originally from Memphis, so the phrases and sayings stood out to me. In my hand-lettering work, I like to create pieces that inspire and instill pride in the people viewing it. Slang, urban vernacular, or anything associated with the urban community is usually looked down upon and isn't celebrated greatly outside of the world of hip-hop. "Spectacular Vernacular" was an opportunity for me to highlight these unique, lively, and colorful expressions and present them in a way that hasn't been seen before.
You're originally from East St. Louis. How is the slang there similar or different from Memphis slang?
The slang is actually similar in a few cases. For instance, "Fire" or "Fye" has been a staple for years back home. "Mane," although not as widely used as it is in Memphis, is a constant in some circles. On the other hand, it is very different. [He laughs.] For example, "Checking" would be the equivalent to "Joaning" or "Flaming" back home. Memphis and East St. Louis are what I call "sister cities." They have a lot in common and aren't too far from each other geographically. So, some things naturally cross.
How did you define each phrase?
I used a few resources. It was a combination of personal experiences, Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a few South Memphis natives, and urbandictionary.com. It was a lot of research. That was probably the most difficult part of the process. But definitely fun and informative.
What makes these colloquialisms appealing?
They're very expressive, brash, authentic, and black. I just love how most of the phrases in the exhibition have multiple meanings depending on the context they're used in. For the most part, they are completely unique to the Memphis. That's something worth noting and celebrating.
What phrase gets the most feedback from viewers?
"Fuck You Mean" definitely gets the most feedback. [Laughs.] It's a crowd favorite. "Lookin' Ass" is a close second.
What is your favorite phrase of the group?
"Mane What" and "What Chu Said" are my favorite phrases to say. Fuck You Mean is probably my favorite piece in the show. I personally think it's beautiful.
Part of the exhibit includes an easel for attendees to use the phrases in a sentence. Why was it important to you to have an element of active audience participation?
I believe in interactive pieces at exhibitions. It gives the viewer an opportunity to be a part of the show and facilitates interactions with other viewers. In this show, I wanted people to use phrases and sayings from the exhibit in a sentence. Some have used a single phrase while others challenged themselves to use as many phrases as possible. During the opening reception, there were quite a few people who weren't aware of all the expressions presented. The interactive piece not only aided in their understanding of certain phrases, it allowed them to be a part of a conversation that they hadn't been a part of previously. That was my goal.
Through December 10th