Now that I look back, the one and only time I ever saw Mark Anthony Mulligan was in the 1980s on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky. I was commuting home from the University of Louisville, waiting for my transfer bus. Mulligan had just stepped off another bus going in the opposite direction. Soon cars were honking and Mulligan was joyfully waving back.
I didn’t know what to think of him, but I didn’t think much of avoiding him. This area of Louisville called the Highlands was and remains Mulligan’s favorite part of town. During the 1990s, his work could be found on sale at a nearby antique mall. The works, on plywood and poster board, consisted of various corporate gasoline signs, streets, and buildings drawn in markers. Before I started collecting, I thought the work seemed childish and said to myself, “anyone could draw that.” I would have never imagined that nearly 25 years later I would own several pieces of his art and spend several days looking for him to interview for this article.
Mulligan was born in May of 1963 in Louisville Kentucky. He is one of seven children. He claims that a fall from his crib injured his brain and caused what he refers to as his ’mental illness’. The area of town he was born in is called Rubbertown, and is known for its chemical factories, rubber production, and sewage treatment plant. The sights and smells of Rubbertown left a strong impression on Mulligan. Many of the signs depicted in his work would have been an everyday sight for him.
While in school Mulligan drew logos and was occasionally praised for his art. He had trouble following the family house rules and left school and home before tenth grade, living on the street and in homeless shelters. Mulligan would ride the public bus in Louisville, gaining inspiration for his art work from what he saw out the bus window. Mulligan’s art is primarily executed with marker on poster board. Sometimes he uses acrylic paint on other surfaces. His imagery appears as a bird’s eye view of a compressed, colorful map. In Mulligan’s world, logos and signs dominate. People, automobiles, and trees, if they depicted at all, are relegated to a supporting role. Mulligan often includes the price of the artwork, with the sales tax separately calculated, as an important detail of the piece. The date of completion and time required to finish the work are also written on the front in ballpoint pen. A native of Louisville will find many of the pieces oddly familiar, while some remain foreign. In later works, Mulligan would expand his repertoire to include food and restaurant signs. KingFish, the seafood restaurant that holds fond childhood memories for many Louisville residents, is depicted in a Mulligan artwork that I have in my collection.
Mulligan is a very religious man. Occasionally, he preaches on the street. Mulligan believes the logos he illustrates hold special meaning, and he becomes upset when corporations change their names. Mulligan has written to various corporations to try to persuade them not to change. Gulf and Ashland are two examples. Mulligan believed that Gulf stood for God’s Undying Love Forever. The change to BP did not appear to have similarly inspired Mulligan. Ashland which Mulligan translated to: Ask His Love and Never Doubt, also no longer can be seen in today’s urban landscape.
Mulligan’s most productive artistic period was 20 years ago. He was on welfare at the time, and the money he received from his artwork was subtracted from his welfare check. This “easy money” reduced his desire to produce art, he said. In addition, psychiatric and health issues slowed his artistic output.
Mulligan loves the attention he receives as an artist. For a time the Swanson Gallery in Louisville represented Mulligan and helped him obtain art material. Al Gorman organized Mulligan first exhibition at the University of Cincinnati in 1988 as well as the retrospective at The Kentucky Folk Art Museum in 2005, called Signs and Logos. Mulligan’s work is in numerous collections including the The New Orleans Museum of Art.
I was helped in my search for Mulligan by the artist and collector Jacque Parsley, who is on the board of directors of the Kentucky Museum of Folk Art in Morehead, Kentucky. We were unsuccessful in trying to locate Mulligan. Employees at Wayside Christian Mission, which is a homeless shelter in Louisville, informed us that he had not been there for several months. Mulligan goes to the homeless shelter during the winter, preferring to live on the streets of the Highlands during the nicer weather. He was last seen in the Highlands, not too long ago with his drawing supplies. It was wonderful to hear that Mulligan continues to work as a productive artist.
Mulligan’s disappearance mirrors the way he entered the art world. Parsley states, “I’m not sure any single person discovered Mulligan. He just appeared on the street in Louisville selling his art in the 1980s.” Regardless of who discovered him, it is clear that his work has wide appeal. As for the sentiment that ‘anyone could draw that’, I can now attribute that to my naivety. When I look at Mulligan’s work now, I see depth and hidden meanings not obvious to the casual observer.