When the first tracks were built for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1850, its name was more of an aspirational one, since it barely stretched past the Louisville border. It took nine more years to cover the 180 miles between the two cities, and the Nashville depot became an essential stop for Union troops during the Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, the railroads had transformed a low-lying part of Nashville known as ‘the Gulch’ into a bustling train yard, with three-dozen tracks, a massive supply shed, and the magnificent new Union Station.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Nashville’s once-thriving railroads have been relegated to niche museums and Johnny Cash covers. Union Station has become a boutique hotel. And following an extensive renovation project, the Gulch is now a slick collection of retailers and restaurants, including a hairdresser specializing in blowouts, a plastic surgeon offering concierge cosmetic treatments, and seven different fitness studios. The neighborhood also has a half-dozen Instagram-ready murals, and none of them have appeared on feeds more often than the 20-foot-tall pair of wings painted on the side of a building on 11th Avenue South. The mural, officially called ‘What Lifts You,’ was completed five years ago by street artist Kelsey Montague. For a number of reasons—the #WhatLiftsYou and #NashvilleGulch hashtags inked beside it, the city’s recent reputation as a bachelorette party destination, the artist’s connection to Taylor Swift—it’s become a thing on social media, and a reason for locals to sigh deeply as they pick their way around the line of tourists who pull the price tags off their new cowboy hats while waiting for their chance to take a picture with the #NashvilleWings. A few days ago, a TikTok of a massive Sunday afternoon crowd queuing up for their turn in front of the mural went crazy-viral. Daniel Pantoja, who posted the clip, said that even though his girlfriend warned him about what they were walking toward, he was still surprised by every aspect of the situation. “I'm a 50-year-old divorced dad of three, so this kind of thing isn't really on my radar,” he told VICE in an email. “I had a bit of a heads up of what was coming, but I was unprepared for the scope of the mural. It’s impressive! The laughter you hear [on the Tiktok] is equal parts scornful, and just awe at the size of the mural.”
Montague painted what she calls her first ‘interactive’ mural, a brightly colored pair of butterfly wings, seven years ago in New York City. Her work and her profile got an almost-immediate boost when Taylor Swift ’grammed a picture of herself standing in front of it, and she has since painted more than 300 murals on six continents, in a distinctive style that often incorporates wings, balloons, hearts, and swings. She’s completed four other murals in Nashville, including one promoting the release of Swift’s song “Me!” and, most recently, a rainbow to honor frontline workers during the pandemic. “It’s an incredible honor that so many people enjoy my work enough to stand in line to see it,” Montague told VICE. “I also feel that the city of Nashville has embraced my work in so many ways. [I]t’s been a wonderful surprise to watch the wings’ popularity grow.” When Montague originally painted the Gulch wings and the other pieces that repeat her ‘What Lifts You’ theme, she hoped that it would encourage visitors to take a moment to consider that question for themselves. But she’s not bothered if people skip the contemplation and go straight to social media. “I’m not here to tell people what to feel or do or say or think when interacting with my art,” she said. “That’s not art, or at least it’s not my art. I also don’t think wanting a picture that makes you feel strong, powerful, or beautiful is a bad thing. If my art provides people with a moment of beauty, joy, strength, or peace, isn’t that what art should be about? About making people feel something powerful? Otherwise, what’s the point?”
But the ubiquity of those pictures, and the near-constant presence of that line, has turned the Gulch Wings into less a source of beauty than a scene of annoyance for locals. “You have no idea how many people in Nashville want to scream about that,” longtime Nashville resident Sara Martin said. “That line [in the TikTok] was not long compared to a lot of what I’ve seen. Sometimes you think that Beyoncé was there, and then you remember ‘Oh yeah, it’s that whole wings thing.’ It’s a little bit of an eye roll, because it’s kind of like they’re missing the point of this town.” Pantoja captioned his TikTok as “literally the worst of what social media has wreaked,” and Martin wouldn’t disagree with that assessment. “Nashville has become very much a bachelorette town, so there’s an influx of younger women who are more attuned to social media, and it’s just another thing for them to check off their lists,” she said. “It’s another, ‘I did the thing that you’re supposed to do in Nashville.’ I went downtown to Lower Broadway and got drunk at Kid Rock’s bar, and wore a cowboy hat, and took my picture in front of the wings.” The popularity of Montague’s murals has led to increased demand for other public art—and unsurprisingly, some of it is trying to replicate some of her #magic. “I live in East Nashville and we have an East Nashville mural organization,” Martin said. “There are a lot of really talented artists over here that are doing clever things and interesting things. I have friends who are mural artists and they say whenever they start consultations with people, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is ‘What about wings?’ So everybody’s looking for their hook, and that’s the first go-to.”
It’s not the just hook; everyone’s undoubtedly looking for a hashtag too. And I’m not just picking on Nashville, not when some of history’s most iconic art has become just another photo background. When Louvre visitors push their way to the front of the ever-present crowd in front of the the Mona Lisa, it’s not to acknowledge the privilege of seeing the world’s best-known artwork for yourself, or to scrutinize this example of Renaissance-era resting bitch face, or even to consider how compact it is in real life: it’s to turn away from it, see how much light is reflecting off of its protective glass case, and take a selfie. I’m admittedly guilty of this too, and I’m not even sure it felt ironic in the moment. It’s not just about being there anymore, it’s about showing everyone that you were there, that you “did the thing that you’re supposed to do,” as Martin put it. “My gut-level reaction when I happened upon this scene is that it was another example of social media fostering trends, groupthink, or an obsession with ‘curating’ one’s life and presenting it a certain way for others’ validation,” Pantoja said of the line for the #GulchWings. “I think I was just struck that so many people were clamoring to have—and document—the same experience, looking the same way, posing the same way, you know? I could see how that might come across as jaded or a bit cynical, but the same social media that gives people a platform to post pictures of their lives and experiences is the same social media that allows others, me included, to offer up commentary.”
The Gulch wings also continue the debate of who public art is for: the locals who might want these works to reflect some kind of meaning or connection to their city, or for visitors who take their pictures and post them when they’re in an Uber back to the airport. “We have a mural on an abandoned grain silo, and it’s one of the most gorgeous murals I’ve ever seen in my life,” Martin said. “It’s an elderly man from our community who’s represented in the piece. It’s beautiful, and kind of in an industrial part of town, so it’s stark in relation to the stripes outside of [Reese Witherspoon’s store] Draper James, or whatever other place that people feel like they need to check off their lists.” That mural features Lee ‘LD’ Estes, a nonagenarian lifetime resident of The Nations neighborhood. It was one of 14 large-scale works organized and curated by the Nashville Walls Project, and was painted by Australian artist Guido Van Helten. ‘The Silo Mural’ also tells a story that some of the city’s other artworks don’t, can’t, or perhaps won’t. “To me, [Estes] stands symbolic against the inevitable tide of gentrification,” Van Helten told Nashville Arts in 2017. “I find the relationship between murals and gentrification conflicting, and in this work there is this conflicting yet harmonious composite of the two sides of social change. There is juxtaposition between a mural that discusses and commemorates the blue-collar demographic, while at the same time being a powerful part of the change in the area. This is a dialogue and talking point that I hope this mural can create.” But not every artwork wants to start the same conversation—or any conversation—and Montague says that’s just as OK. “When I hear critics going after my work I hear a social commentary that is much deeper,” she said. “Why is it when humans are [posing with] the work, they take a picture and share their experience, feelings, hopes and fears on social media, the art is [seen as] less valuable?” “I want to challenge the idea that ‘real art’ is only what we see in museums and galleries gathered together under the watchful eye of a curator,” she continued. “I want people to see, touch, feel, photo, and interact with my work—and people all over the world have responded to that [...] The ubiquitousness of these photos and posts doesn’t diminish my work, instead it is a testament to its purpose: to touch as many people as possible.” A few days post-TikTok, and Pantoja has reconsidered how he responded to that scene. “Many shared my perspective, and many others commented that it seemed mean-spirited, and that's a fair assessment,” he said. “Had I known this would have blown up the way it did, I'm not sure I'd have come across as critical. It certainly wasn’t my intent to step on toes or hurt feelings, it was really just a spontaneous reaction on my part.”Although he wasn’t particularly interested in the wings, it was art that brought him to Nashville in the first place: he traveled from Kentucky to see the Picasso Figures exhibition at the Frist Art Museum. According to the museum’s website, all entry times are currently sold out, but you can follow along with the hashtag #FristPicasso. Of course you can.