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Memphian on the Move: Lettering Artist Eso Tolson Takes on Choose901 Merch Collab

Sometimes you need a sign from the universe to steer you in the right direction when trying to set forth on a new path.

The stars guided Eso Tolson to Memphis where his typography has turned into an iconic emblem that's etched its way into our identity.

A man wearing a purple t-shirt collaborates on Choose901 merchandise.

Intent on continuing his post-secondary studies, the East St. Louis native walked where two roads would diverge; one leading to Cleveland and the other to the Memphis.

Ultimately, the decision came down to a conflict with transferred credits, but nevertheless, the creative saw Memphis as a place where he could create a world of his own.

“I’m still here because of the communities that I’ve been a part of; that I’ve been enriched and supported by,” Eso said. “But also because there are no people like Memphis people anywhere else on earth.”

His overarching interest in the arts helped him find his tribe of creatives—and together, they would activate new artistic avenues to explore.

Not long after his move, he linked up with DJ Siphne Aaye to launch Artistik Lounge, a musical salon of sorts where local and national talent would come together once a month to, for lack of better words, turn up.

He also played a large part in the premier presence of Choose901 after he was hired as a Graphic Design Resident in 2014. 

A group of people sitting on the floor in front of a piano collaborates artistically.
Photo: Artistik Lounge by DBW Photography

In the years that followed, his work on the production side of the campaign provided inspiration for personal projects that not only pushed necessary narratives, but also pointed out Memphis’ need for more Memphis merch.

“I remember going to a Cooper Young Fest, and all I wanted to find was a cool Memphis t-shirt,” Eso said. “This was before the days of dope, independent designers. Choose901 community shirts were really cool at the time, but I felt like there was a missing message; a gap that I could fill.”

In 2015, eso launched his "embrace your inner memphis" merch line to encourage the acceptance of the good and bad that comes with the bluff city.

A collage of people wearing t-shirts.

“It’s really interesting because it’s become this international thing,” Eso said. “There are people wearing this shirt in Sydney, Singapore, and France—and it’s wild that so many people from around the country have adopted this identity. There’s something inside them that really gravitates toward what Memphis represents. It’s that authenticity that we have.”

He also released a “Spectacular Vernacular” print series to commemorate the slang that’s known as native 901 language. 

Tolson’s take on Memphis’ moxie and uniquely Memphis messages casts a net that captures the attention of folks near and far.

FOR THE CHOOSE901 SIGNATURE SERIES drop, he was moved by Memphis' make-up and yet another memphis mantra.

A group of people wearing Shop Choose901's Signature Series t-shirts.

His design draws inspiration from the city’s predominately Black background, diverse demographic, and the coined carol, “Memphis Memphis Memphis, the most brutiful land in the world.”

“It’s about pride,” Eso said. “It’s about celebration. And just the word “Memphis” is palatable enough to be shared by all, but it’s depicted in a distinct way. You only know if you know.”

The variation of each letter on the shirt portrays the medley of Memphis’ culture—while the mirroring images on both front and back represent the captivating charisma that’s embodied by all Memphians.

A talented artist collaborates with Choose901 to create unique merchandise.

“Memphis has such a cutting-edge history,” Eso said. “It’s always been a place of innovation. The artists we are known for are progressive. The doctors over at St. Jude have been defying odds since the beginning. The Grizzlies [shoutout to Ja] have taken ownership of our identity, too.”

"I feel like we're diamonds, and sometimes it's hard for us to see it. Because when you're surrounded by diamonds, it's like...'Oh, that's just what we do.'"
Eso Tolson

And amidst the daily grind the shine, Eso emphasizes the power of rest. He took the stage at TedxMemphis 2021 to advocate for the benefits of creating environments for people to chill. 

“You may not feel it, but you’re getting things done while you’re resting,” Eso said. “It’s a different kind of work. More like your body’s own business.”

Through all of his work, Eso’s essence is pronounced; and as he continues to infuse our city with bits and pieces of himself, he is confident that more Memphians will follow suit, fortifying the future. 

“It seems like we’re all dedicated to nurturing the energy that we have here. So I’m just excited to see who’s going to be a part of keeping that going.”

Keep up with eso's work:

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