For Michael Roy, art is for the birds. The 28-year-old muralist, who goes by the moniker “Birdcap,” traveled from the unpronounceable town of Escatawpa, Mississippi, to spread his porthole-eyed caricatures across the world in places like Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Poland.
Roy started painting street art seriously about four years ago while living in Seoul, South Korea, while working as an English teacher, art instructor and freelance illustrator. “South Korea has one of the strangest economies in the world right now,” he says. “There’s been extreme expansion and that led to a lot of blocks to be torn down and demolished slowly.”
These decaying and forgotten buildings provided Michael with his first canvas and led him to meet the locals and assimilate into the Seoul street art culture. “It’s a necessary component for any city with a creative scene,” he says. “You can call it vandalism, but experimentation is what it takes to make a decent muralist. If you go to Berlin, for example, there aren’t a lot of walls down there that aren’t covered in graffiti.”
After returning to the U.S., Roy had developed his own style that fuses a contemporary narrative with the mythology of the city, citing the Mayan and Aztec works as some of his major influences.
“Even down South, you look at a place like Clarksdale where a lot of the buildings are owned by independent investors from out of state — they aren’t maintained, they aren’t decent. Having street art in a place like this provides a cheap way to activate an inactive space.”
And though street art is usually among the first installations to be covered up when an area is renovated, the ephemeral nature of this medium led to Roy’s artist’s handle: Birdcap. “It was something to do with that phrase and deciding to make art. How opaque it is as a language, and how pointless it was compared to being a more concrete facet in helping society, he says. “Everything is really complicated, more than what we could really see from our vantage point. Every effort we do is for the birds, so I used to write it to remind me that just because I’m working really hard on it, it doesn’t necessarily give that work importance outside of how it helps me.”
Roy’s work can be viewed through September at “The Art of Video Games” exhibit at the Brooks Museum, as well as a pair of recently finished murals in Memphis’ Broad Avenue Arts district.