Memphis designer Eso Tolson’s encourages other cities to ’embrace your inner’ self
What’s at the heart of a city? For Memphis designer Eso Tolson, it’s the people — the good, the bad, the complicated. Tolson’s “Embrace Your Inner Memphis” campaign has taken off in the last five years, a call to celebrate every aspect of the city’s rich fabric.
For Tolson, an artist and branding guru, embracing a city means looking beyond the tourist-friendly surface and celebrating real life, especially communities of color that may get overlooked in marketing brochures. He created “Embrace Your Inner Memphis” in 2015 as a way to “empower Memphis natives and Memphis lovers.”
“People reduced [Memphis] to maybe barbecue and Elvis,” Tolson said. “I wanted to have a conversation about celebrating all of Memphis — the good parts and the not so good parts — knowing that’s what every city does. It’s what New Orleans does, it’s what Austin, Texas does, New York, LA, even Nashville. They celebrate all of it. Memphis is just as worthy of celebrating.”
‘Embrace Your Inner’: From concept to campaign
Tolson is an art school grad with a degree in graphic design and a distinctively cool hand-lettering style. With his background in branding, Tolson took “Embrace Your Inner” from a concept to a campaign that went beyond his expectations. Within a few days of initially sharing his design on social media, Tolson was getting requests to put the image on T-shirts. He knew he had to act quickly to take control of his own work. Working with his current business partner, web strategist Dana James-Mwangi, Tolson put up a simple web page and hired a local business to silk screen shirts.
“In 72 hours, I had a web page to take preorders,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to make it a thing–I was just protecting intellectual property.”
But “Embrace Your Inner” has, in fact, become a thing. Tolson’s Instagram is full of Memphians of all backgrounds wearing the shirt. For the artist, it’s a way for community members to show civic pride and celebrate the real life of the city.
“When I go out and I see [the shirt], there’s something that’s being communicated,” he said. “The person wearing the shirt is embodying that idea.”
Tolson is now looking at bringing “Embrace Your Inner” to cities and neighborhoods around the country but says he has to be selective about who and what he spotlights. Memphis is a majority African-American city, and lifting up communities of color is a priority.
“I want to have this concept for a lot of cities that should be celebrated more — and particularly the black and brown communities that don’t get the recognition or the highlights,” Tolson said. “I want to make sure it’s more than, ‘Yeah we’re going to celebrate this new boutique or beer garden.’ I want to make sure that all of that city, all of that neighborhood are being celebrated.”
Problem solving and communicating
Tolson grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis. An aspiring artist since childhood, he saw graphic design as a way to have a creative career and still earn a solid income.
“It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Tolson said. “It’s really just problem solving and communicating. Having that as a skill, especially for an artist, is crucial.”
Tolson moved to Memphis in 2008 to study art and design at the Memphis College of Art and has been a proud Memphian ever since. He’s also well-known in the city for his work as part of the a capella duo Artistik Approach. Tolson launched the group with fellow art student Siphne Sylve, now a New Orleans-based artist and musician. The two musicians started jamming in the dorms, and an open mic night turned into a series of gigs that lasted for more than a decade.
“Music is a big part of who I am,” Tolson said.
The power of design
But for now, Tolson is focused on his visual art, expanding the “Embrace Your Inner” campaign, and on the booming branding consulting firm, Cheers Creative, that he runs with James-Mwangi. Tolson is also reflecting on how to use his design skills to empower his city during the COVID pandemic and the country’s growing social justice movement.
“Design is a very powerful tool,” he said. “What would it look like to use those media to create this message of positivity, of hope, of pride for oneselves?”
Tolson recently created protest posters for the art-based social justice nonprofit Fine Acts and is exploring other ways to help Memphians make their voices heard.
Memphis is well known as a music town, the home of the legendary Stax Records, and a world-renowned blues scene. But Tolson also underscores Memphis’ crucial role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s — the world-changing 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“The history and the art and culture of Memphis have influenced the entire world,” Tolson said. “Somebody right now in Vietnam is singing something by Isaac Hayes or being inspired by the sanitation workers and how they stood up against the injustices in front of them and inspired movements around the world by saying we are human, we are here. There’s so much history and culture. It’s rich. It’s in the water, it’s in the soil.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.