If you keep up with the Atlanta mural scene there’s no doubt you’ll be familiar with the work of artist Drew Borders. Her pieces feature Black women in a style that is reminiscent of anime and manga spread large over walls and the looming Ormewood Bridge.
Vibrant, funky, and bold, her oversized portraits evoke a sense of magic and ethereal power. I had the opportunity to meet with Borders at her recently completed mural on the side of The Hill Social in the Atlanta University Center (AUC) and got to learn a bit more about her journey and her art.
“I love to focus on minorities, particularly Black and Brown women,” explained Borders. The mural she completed on The Hill Social was designed to honor HBCUs, particularly Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University. “I also love to put a lot of Atlanta culture in there. Unapologetically black, I guess.”
Borders was born and raised in Atlanta, and while she was always an art lover she was not really invested in her art as a potential career path until going to high school at the Westminster School in Buckhead. It was there, during an artist talk with exhibiting artist Dr. Fahamu Pecou, that Borders really saw the potential to make a living as an artist. “That made me think ‘oh, I can do this too.’ He paints what he wants to and not what makes people comfortable.” This experience offered a radical shift in mindset for Borders, and heavily influenced her career path. She went on to attend Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah where she pursued a Bachelor’s of Fine Art degree in 2D Animation with a minor in Motion Graphics. You’d never know it judging by her prolific contributions to the Atlanta mural scene but she actually only graduated a few years ago in 2020.
“Art was more than I thought it could be; it encouraged me to venture out and explore the opportunities that Atlanta offers.” At only 24 years old, Borders has already earned a reputation for excellent murals and animation. Through partnerships with organizations such as ABV Gallery, Forward Warrior, the Atlanta BeltLine, and Coca-Cola, she has found opportunities to transfer her art from her mind onto huge public spaces throughout the city.
Borders traces all of her artwork inspiration and passions back to her childhood. As a young girl she and her two older siblings devoted many afternoons after school to drawing. She also told me about how impactful the television that she watched was – and continues to be – on her art. ”Watching a lot of anime and cartoons growing up I realized that was a job and someone did it for a living,” she recalled.
“Cartoon Network kind of had me in a chokehold,” she said with a laugh. “I was very much into the Powerpuff Girls. This is going to sound so crazy but I loved that there was a show about little girls who just beat the crap out of people.”
Borders had noticed that many of the female characters in other anime shows would often be weaker than their male counterparts and frequently needed rescuing. On those quiet afternoons she would pause the television and practice sketching the wild animation she saw in shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Inuyasha, and Ed, Edd n Eddy. From there it was just a question of continuing the practice. She kept at it and began investigating careers in art, though at the time she thought her path would lead her towards fine art or animation rather than public art and murals. While she was interested in making a career out of art she didn’t exactly know how to go about it until she enrolled at SCAD.
Having attended predominantly white schools all her life, SCAD offered a taste of diversity that further cemented her beliefs that she, too, could make a living off of her art. Her first big break as a muralist came when a relative hired her to paint her bathroom. Borders initially wasn’t sure if she wanted to take on the job and nearly declined, but eventually she decided to complete the job. It was her first time working on a mural and it had nothing to do with her degree, but the job represented was the first step that led her on a path to becoming integrated in the local mural scene. She met Cameron the Concept Muralist and through that connection she was able to delve into the local mural scene.
“I feel like Atlanta is so lucky, there are so many opportunities for artists to break out here,” said Borders. She acknowledges that this is not a universal experience for artists, but in her case she has experienced support and encouragement from fellow artists. In the animation world, perseverance, discipline, respect, and a good first impression is everything. And for Borders those qualities have become intertwined with every aspect of her artistic career. “When I came into the mural scene I didn’t expect anything of it, I still applied this same practice and was really respectful. I just kept going and kept applying.”
As for the subject matter, Borders knows that her work is not for everyone. She has been asked why she doesn’t include more diversity in her paintings, but she tries to remember that she is making art for herself and others like her. “I think it’s important because representation really does matter, it affects the way that you see yourself,” said Borders. “I didn’t see any images of myself or my family or friends with darker complexions. I started to internalize that, and I felt less important because I didn’t see it. I had a lot of self confidence issues growing up that I felt were directly related to that.” Now, as an artist who works in public art, she has found a growing power to be the positive influence that she needed as a young woman.
Today, Borders has her sights set on career advancement, not only for herself but also for others. She wants to see more mural festivals that showcase Black and Brown people, and would love to see a women-only mural festival come together. While things are certainly changing for the better, the mural scene is still mostly dominated by white men. Though she has shifted her focus from working in ultra-competitive roles in major animation production houses to the ever-changing world of murals, Borders is still open to animation and painting opportunities.
“This is me being myself. I didn’t feel like I could be myself before,“I felt like I had to code switch to fit in.” explained Borders, referencing the faces that appear time and again in her murals. “These Black and Brown women are enjoying themselves. I want kids to look at it and see that there are more forms of themselves that aren’t negative. You can be happy, you can be strong. You can be whoever you want to be.”