Profile: Joe Louis Light (1934–2005)

Joe Louis Light was an American painter from Dyersburg, Tennessee. His work focuses on transcendentalism, attaining spiritual or moral enlightenment, and the balance and order of the universe.


Joe Light grew up on a farm outside of Dyersburg, Tennessee with his mother, Virgie (Virgin) Mary, and father, Hiawatha. He became estranged from his parents as a young boy and completed until the eighth at Brewer High School. He spent his youth farming until he enlisted in the army in March 1951. However, in August of that same year, he was discharged because, as he said, “I found out they were going to send me to Korea, so I hurt my arm.” Shortly after leaving the military, he was imprisoned from 1954-55 for armed robbery of a grocery store. He was also imprisoned in the Nashville penitentiary from 1960–66 and 1966-68. During his first prison sentence, Light met a Rabbi and converted to Judaism. He recalled that hearing the Old Testament “was the first time something a preacher said ever made good sense to me.”

Light was married twice. He married and had two children in his early twenties, but left that family before going to prison in 1960. After his release from prison in 1966, he traveled to various places in the southern mid-west courting women for marriage. According to Light’s account, he traveled to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Tennessee in search of a wife. He met Rosie Lee Cotton, and immediately after his second release from prison, he married her on September 1, 1968. Together they raised five sons and five daughters outside of Memphis, Tennessee.

Light rented a booth at the local flea market as his main source of income. He re-purposed salvaged or vintage goods and sold them at the market. He never sold his paintings or signage there.

Light was an outspoken recluse. Although he rarely left his house or socialized with his neighbors, he maintained an almost Evangelical approach to spreading political justice and Old Testament- derived morality. “He [had] the fervor of a convert; he believed that he had the answers to solve the world’s problems.”

Light died on August 6, 2005 at age 70 and is buried in the West Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery.


Joe Light loosely began making art after his conversion to Judaism. As he traveled the southern mid-west searching for a wife, he began chalking and graffiting moral codes and Old Testament verses on public spaces. Graffiti helped him develop his style of signage, which he used to proselytize his code of ethics. Once he married Rosie Lee Cotton and settled down into his home on Looney St. in Memphis in 1970, he used his home as his main base for communicating his messages. He took inspiration from his graffiti in the 1960s and began writing ethical and moral commands on the shutters and siding of his home.

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