Demetrius “Inkslanga” Gayden wears a black facemask, a black bandana and black gloves as he leans over a shirtless patron.
“What’s up my boy!” Demetrius shouts.
“Not too much. Just checking on you guys, I reply.
“Hey, Leo,” his wife Shaniyah adds while pouring an assortment of colors into an airbrush gun. “Demetrius is famous for his colorful tattoos,” she adds.
Gayden is known in East Biloxi for producing eye-popping tattoos and piercings. Many coastal residents who frequent Inkslanga’s Tatoo and Piercing Studio display his artwork on their bodies. The image forming on the individual’s chest that day in November 2021 resembles the wings of a soaring bald eagle. The patron’s calmness through the process, amid constant buzzing from the ink gun, is impressive as is the artwork.
Green and black walls present the most exquisite display of artistic illustrations inside the studio. Many of Gayden’s drawings and designs could be considered showcase-worthy in many coastal retail art stores. His transition from tattoo art to digital painting sets him apart from many tattoo artists on the Gulf Coast. He and his wife have built a successful business that has become very popular in the community since they opened their doors in 2015.
One of the most inspirational aspects of his work is his custom-designed murals, which serve as public memorials for the community.
‘A Fountain of Immortality’
Coast residents are huge fans of Gayden’s artistic ability to create exact replicas of their loved ones on any canvas, which can turn into public tributes of people we’ve lost. That includes my own family. My mother occasionally reminds me that “Demetrius is like a son” to her.
Gayden spent several nights painting a portrait of my twin brother Cleo on the side of a local business on Keller Avenue to commemorate his untimely death. Cleo passed away due to complications arising from Type-1 diabetes in March 2017. Gayden—Meat I usually call him—and my brother were very close. The Gayden family stood by our family’s side throughout the entire process as we prepared for his funeral service.
Gayden has done the same for so many who have experienced a similar loss of loved ones. After years of hard work and dedication, his artwork has become more than an inspiration to the East Biloxi community. It is a fountain of immortality for families to memorialize the heroes and heroines who have had an impact on their lives.
As I sat on a chair next to the table where Gayden was working, we conversed about our upbringing in East Biloxi. Joe Gayden was a strict disciplinarian who instilled a hard work ethic into his sons. The son credits his father’s construction and carpentry skills for his own eye for design.
Gaytha and Joe Gayden raised Demetrius on Keller Avenue. He and I both grew up in an area once called the “Red Zone” in East Biloxi. As children, Gayden and I both faced adversity indicative of systemic issues that still affect many youths in our marginalized communities today.
Today, Gayden the artist gives back however he can.
Obstacles Indicative of Marginalized Youth
Gayden’s nurturing spirit and compassion, to which he says he owes his mother, was on full display when local organizers John Kemp and Jonathan Green of the Steps Coalition, as well as the City of Biloxi, reached out to Demetrius Gayden to commission a series of beautification projects in and around the East Biloxi community.
The first was at the Bayou Auguste Greenway, a bridge that connects low-income housing units north and south of Back Bay. Gayden says he worked day and night to beautify the bridge while raw sewage and trash lined the banks below. He points to the dilapidated areas surrounding East Biloxi communities to explain the lack of support from investors.
His work garnered the praise of community leaders and city officials who asked Gayden to work on the vacant Inez Lounge and Cafe on the corner of Main and Division Street downtown. Inez Thomas’s lounge had been a community gathering place for years prior to Hurricane Katrina. I can still hear her stern voice bellowing to customers, “order up” as they waited for their food. Many would travel for miles just to hear her witty commentary.
We both spent weeks prepping the building before he started painting the murals. I remember John Kemp of the Steps Coalition renting a pressure washer and buying paint supplies so that Gayden and I could prime the areas where portraits of the 1960 Biloxi wade-in and Inez Thomas were painted.
Gayden eventually spent his own money to help buy an assortment of colors of paint to improve the quality of his work. He envisioned every detail of the images in each portrait. Inez Thomas passed away before she could witness the final product.
Tyrone Burton of Tyrone’s Barber Shop spoke with me at the balloon release for Inez Thomas after her untimely death. “Her family should be proud of what she did for this community,” Burton said.
Gayden spoke on the sacrifices that Thomas, a pillar in East Biloxi, contributed to her community for more than 30 years. Devastating winds from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 necessitated years of construction, ultimately leading many Black-owned businesses in East Biloxi to close or relocate.
“I was happy to do it for her family,” Gayden said.
Sacrifices for Change
Demetrius Gayden and wade-in participant Clemon Jimerson stood among several community leaders and elected officials who spoke during Inez Thomas mural’s unveiling in January 2022. The stage sat alongside the Biloxi Beach Wade-In Timeline outside Inez’s Lounge and Cafe. Demetrius’ wife, Shaniyah Gayden, spoke on “the work that it took to pull this (mural) off.”
Her words moved the Thomas family, visibly filling family and friends with emotion.
She acknowledged the “hard work and dedication” that went into preserving Inez Thomas’ legacy. Wade-in participants Clemon Jimerson, my father Le’Roy Carney and Ethel Clay acknowledged Gayden’s work and gave personal accounts of the racial discrimination that faced young NAACP and SNCC organizers who were determined to be agents of change in their communities.
“Wade-in meetings would occur at night at St. John’s Church,” Carney, who currently holds a mayoral appointment to the Agricultural Historic Review Committee, said. “Dr. Mason would teach the demonstrators about the laws of non-violent procedures. Medgar Evers was supposed to attend the wade-In demonstration with us, but he was killed.”
East Biloxi native and retired educator Ethel Clay praised Gayden for his perseverance while growing up in east Biloxi. “I am so proud of you, Demetrius!” Clay said. “He was so hard-headed in class. I would drive by at all times of the night and still see him working. He has inspired a whole community.”
Dr. David Perkes, a professor at Mississippi State University and director of its College of Architecture and Design, acknowledged the decline in economic development that Gayden spoke about in east Biloxi.
“I have been working closely with the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio,” Perks told me. “We have done tremendous work on various projects in East Biloxi to revitalize Black businesses in this area since Hurricane Katrina.”
Climate-Justice Initiatives Underway
Several sponsors in attendance shared responsibility for spearheading efforts to commission Gayden’s services and to galvanize resources for revitalization in East Biloxi. Steps Coalition Executive Director Johnathan Green and Director John Kemp, Biloxi NAACP President James W. Crowell III, Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich Jr. and Ward 2 Councilman Felix Gines all played pivotal roles in the process.
The support comes on the heels of Gayden’s beautification efforts and a community-led response to the dilapidated conditions of businesses and homes along Main and Division street corridors. The data in the East Biloxi Community Collaborative’s Community Needs Assessment are critical for organizations that are committed to the transformation of the East Biloxi community.
East Biloxi Community Collaborative Program Director Jakavious Pickett spoke about the organization’s partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and their work with community leaders on a proposed climate-justice initiative that rolled out in February. The collaborative, Biloxi NAACP and partnering organizations held their second community-action meeting on June 2, 2022, to promote their East Biloxi Redevelopment Project.
Organizers invited residents to the Biloxi Civic Center on Howard Avenue at 5:30 p.m. on June 2, 2022 to speak with community leaders and to learn about flood-resistant construction, fortified buildings and job opportunities in green infrastructure. The effort uses private funding to train residents for skilled positions in public and private sectors and in eco-friendly industries.
Leading Way Toward Economic Development
After the involved parties drafted the Revitalization Plan, the city’s Historic Preservation Division conducted additional surveys and research such as the East Biloxi African American and Civil Rights Historic Survey (2017). The survey documents and preserves the city’s Black American history and legacy at historical sites, particularly along east Biloxi’s Main Street where Black communities and businesses thrived.
“The eco-district” incentivizes the creation of open spaces for flood control, community gardens for food production, and land-use patterns that turn vacant properties in flood-prone areas along Main Street into flood-resilient green infrastructures. The Environmental and Climate Justice Committee of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP collaborated with the Gulf Coast Regional Collaborative on potential eco-district projects.
Demetrius Gayden’s artistic vision sparked these efforts—along with the passions of other dedicated individuals. The collaborative paved the way to galvanize the East Biloxi community to revitalize their neighborhoods and create opportunities for future generations of residents to have better lives.
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