Enter the Imaginarium
Mid-South tour guide Tad Pierson
of American Dream Safari on“carving his own cave” in downtown Memphis
Story by Casey Hilder
Photos by Casey Hilder and Madison Yen
Some have referred to it is as “The Imaginarium.” Tad Pierson calls it home.
Americana drips from the ceilings of Pierson’s 7,500 square-foot garage apartment in Downtown Memphis. The space is busy and beatific, covered with hand-painted signs and self-fashioned “assembly art” made from discarded tires pulled haphazardly from the side of the road. Three airstream trailers sit comfortably in the confines of the cracked walls, decked out with dated relics including stacks of old cathode ray tube TVs, aging automobile parts and the unmistakable sheen of furniture coated in naugahyde.
A window unit juts from the side of a single trailer. “That’s my summer home,” he says. “You know, the one with AC.”
Living in a cramped confines of a 1970 teardrop camper is nothing new to the aging entrepreneur. When Pierson first arrived in the city more than 20 years ago, he spent his first eight months living in a trailer behind the P&H Café, a Midtown Memphis staple. “[The P&H] was basically my living room for a while,” he says of his early years as a Memphian. “I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but quite quickly I fell in love with the city.”
By day, Pierson hosts guided tours of the city that’s been his home since 1994. Dubbed “The American Dream Safari Company,” Pierson shows visitors a side of the city that isn’t shown in brochures. A far cry from the tour buses that trudge through the city, Pierson’s custom tours take guests on a cruise from Beale Street to North Memphis, stopping at places of note. The transportation of choice is a beige ‘55 Cadillac – the very same make and model once favored by the King of Rock and Roll.
“American Dream is all about the myth and legend of the open road,” he says.
A love of the blues and the congealed culture unique to Memphis sparked a drive to explore that led Pierson out of a gig as a Route 66 tour guide and headfirst into the ripe, organic storytelling potential of the Bluff City. As with many Mid-South tourism companies, exploring the humble upbringings of Elvis Presley is a big draw.
“You don’t need me to take you to Graceland” he says. “That’s pretty easy to find. But I show people a few nice places off the beaten path. Like where Elvis went to high school, where he lived in public housing and a lot of other places that really put his life into perspective.”
The same goes for the Blues. Visitors don’t come to Pierson looking for Beale Street. That's easy to find. They come for insider information about places like CJ’s NightClub in West Memphis, Club Flex in South Memphis and Wild Bill’s off Vollintine Avenue.
Pierson also works as a self-proclaimed “industrial artist,” designing and crafting works of art from found materials – mostly tires. These eclectic pieces add to the overall aesthetic of the “carve your own cave” mentality that dictates the interior décor of his home and studio.
“I’ve developed a real eye for it -- it’s kind of a quirky thing,” he says. “I got started about 15 years ago painting garden planters and my big breakthrough was coming up with this two-tone paintjob for the tires, you know, painting in the treads. Then it became more of an art.”
Pierson’s indoor trailer park has allowed him to cut loose with his work. His garage home is now decorated from floor to ceiling with a wide array of custom creations including chairs, tables and lamps.
“You could call it by accident or you could call it part of the artistic journey,” he says of his handiwork. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily practical, but it’s definitely a work of functional art.”