Underneath the bridge where Claiborne Avenue meets Orleans Avenue, a mural devoted to New Orleans footwork electrifies what is otherwise a drab piece of urban infrastructure along the Claiborne corridor. It’s part of a revitalization effort led by the Cultural Innovation District and its creator is Ceaux Young, an artist whose work as a painter of walls and tattooer of skin has earned him enough accolades to make him one of the city’s pre-eminent creators. Of course, the inclusion of his Hollygrove mural of Lil Wayne—which appeared in Drake’s music video for “In My Feelings”—made the spotlight on Ceaux a little brighter. But for locals, he’s been a landmark since well before the superstar gave him shine, and his work in preserving the history of New Orleans can’t be compared to hits on YouTube.
“It’s hard to fight developers when they’re throwing millions of dollars around. It’s hard to control the space you don’t own. My main job is to protect that footprint,” he says. “Some people write, some people make films. I understand my role in the visual part of that.”
Born Courtney Buckley in 1983, Ceaux Young (whose name was inspired by a “Geaux Saints” calendar hanging on his grandmother’s wall) has lived in the Lower 9th Ward, Pigeon Town, Gert Town, New Orleans East and elsewhere across the city. By the time he enrolled at Sarah T. Reed, he was already a few years into honing his craft. “I think I was nine years old when my teacher made a big deal about my drawing,” he says. “Before that, I really thought everybody could draw. I didn’t know it was something involving talent. All I did was draw trucks and Bart Simpson and Ninja Turtles. Me and my classmates used to challenge each other and there was a lightweight competition.”
As a teenager, he began taking his talent outside of the classroom. “I used to write graffiti as a teenager. I veered off into characters and full production pieces and murals. I painted the whole inside back room of Cafe Brasil in 2002. I was around 17 at that time and got paid $300,” he says with justified pride.
Around the same time, he became interested in an entirely different creative pursuit. “This is a little known fact: I’m way more passionate about music than art.” As Professor Bling, he produces for friends who rap is involved with Supreme Being, the hip-hop album covered in this month’s “5 Questions” interview with M.A.Q. He also recently made his directorial debut, for rapper Paasky’s “Life Is Cheap.”
It would be tattooing that would steer him towards a career in art. Faced with an exceedingly high cell-phone bill in 2003, Ceaux got industrious. “I tattooed six people in one day and made $500 day, off a whim. I was able to make that money because I needed it. I was 19 at that time, so I knew then that I’d never need a formal job and have never worked one.” His name in the world of ink has grown so large that today he’s booked a full two months in advance for tattoos.
With 15 years of work behind him, Ceaux is now planning for an ambitious solo art show at Axiom Gallery, where he’ll open “Dear New Orleans” on October 6. “This show is a small stretch from what I normally do. I usually do a lot of profiles and portrait style. I’m moving further into scenic type things and situations. It’s still in the same style that I do. I’m just trying to tell a story without having to speak it.”
Works in the show are focused on a theme of nostalgia and in part to people who are not from New Orleans. “A lot of people move here and only know what they see. They have no idea what this place was and why people act the way they do. People who transplant here get used to the fun and the light stuff and they just think New Orleans is like that all the time. And it’s absolutely not.”
To tell them the story of New Orleans, Ceaux will showcase pieces inspired by neighborhood scenes, high-school memories and what he calls “the bus-stop days.” In particular, he wants to encapsulate his commute to school. “As children, we rode the public bus to school. We didn’t have yellow school buses. Only the special-ed kids and field trips got those. I’m touching on how we were forced to grow up. These are images to remind people of the past. I’m writing a letter to the people who have no idea about the inner-city people who know about certain things.”
Ceaux Young hopes to be commissioned to create the Jazz Fest poster. “I’m just trying to put my work out in the streets now so that, when it does happen, I can feel like I deserve it. I want people to feel like it’s warranted.”
Dear New Orleans by Ceaux at the Axiom Fine Art Gallery, 4613 Freret Street with the opening reception on Saturday, October 6 from 6-10 p.m.