Finding the medium for the message

More news about: Manchester
Tanner Fernung sits on the ground in front of a mural of his, an American flag spray-painted on a brick wall with the number 22 in white in the upper right-hand corner.
Tanner Fernung aims to bring awareness to mental health issues with his art, which appears throughout central Indiana as well as in other locations across the country.
Provided photos

By Joe Sager

When one thinks about graffiti and street art, big cities and bright lights come to mind.

Not cornfields and rural Indiana.

But, that’s where Tanner Fernung calls home. He’s a rising young street artist who has drawn interest nationally for his work. And, he’s a senior offensive lineman for the Manchester University football team.

Say what?

“It’s definitely different,” Fernung said. “Football is a very physical activity and art is more of a peaceful release. You get both sides of the spectrum.”


While growing up in Sharpsville, Indiana, which had a population of 607 as of the 2010 census, Fernung developed a love of art while at Tri-Central High School.

“When I was about 15, my high school art teacher kind of pushed me on a certain style of art and I got really into that. Ever since, I’ve been drawing graffiti,” he said. “I never got the opportunity to paint on walls. The summer of my sophomore year of college, I got the opportunity to paint on the wall of a little alley where a bunch of artists from around the community could paint. I completed that and, pretty much, the jobs started rolling in. It went from there.”

That first mural was completed in neighboring Tipton, Indiana, and was of the main character from “Up” – a Pixar animated movie. It drew rave reviews. He’s completed a couple of murals in Arizona and near Manchester University, as well as a handful around Tipton, including one of a large black and white American flag with “22” in the corner, to denote the 22 veterans who commit suicide per day, on average.

“That is probably my favorite one, so far,” Fernung said.

Not only because of the artwork, but the messaging. That’s really what fuels Fernung’s passion. He wants to spread mental health awareness through his art.

“Whoever commissions me, they come up with a theme. I am pretty much open to anything. But, my main focus is mental health awareness,” he said. “My sophomore year of college, I had a friend commit suicide. This summer, I had friend pass away from substance abuse. I went through my own mental health period this year. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I saw the different routes I could go. I painted every day this summer and that go me through it.”


Fernung’s message resonates with the Spartans. Their season opener against Trine was dedicated to raising mental health awareness. Players from both teams wore green shoelaces to support the cause.

“The idea came from Tanner. We had T-shirts, balloons and a local agency came out. We all wanted to support him and his endeavors,” Manchester coach Nate Jensen said. “He is a pretty talented young man. Anytime we’ve seen what he’s doing on social media, it was an immediate favorite and retweet from my account, the Manchester football account and our assistant coaches. We are very proud of him and all he is accomplishing and for bringing this message to the forefront. He is doing something greater than for himself.”

Fernung is happiest when he’s working on art.

“Art, in general, is a release,” he said. “The thing about spray painting a wall, even though it’s legal when I do it, you sort of get a rush, I guess. That’s the only way I know how to explain. You relax that way.”

How did those art classes lead to spray painting walls, though? He wasn’t out defacing property or anything.

“I’ve always drawn. My freshman year here, I took a painting class. Ever since then, I started painting on canvas. A year later, I finally got my first opportunity to paint on a wall,” he said. “It’s actually a lot easier than it looks. I used to watch YouTube videos all the time on how to do it. Once I started doing it, I just flowed with it. I did whatever I could with the spray paint. A full wall would take me four or five days. If someone wanted a logo or something, that’d probably just take me a day.”


Once Fernung graduates, the art and exercise science major wants to give back via the classroom.

“My plans right now are to transition to teaching art,” he said. “I’d need to do something stable like teaching and do just graffiti on the side in the summers and during breaks,”

Until then, he’s going to enjoy his senior season with the Spartans even though he may not grab many headlines as an offensive lineman.

“Football’s a lot of fun. It’s a family environment. They’ve given me support in everything. Just the vibe and aura of everything is a lot of fun,” he said. “I like contributing any way I can. I enjoy being a part of this team and having fun with my friends.”

Manchester hopes to find a way for Fernung to leave a lasting legacy off the field, too.

“We’ve had talks about what we can do here. Where is a space for a blank canvas for Tanner to not just leave his mark on the field, but on our campus, too,” Jensen said. “We have a great group of seniors. When I got hired to be head football coach here, Tanner was part of that first group. So, this group is very special to me. There are a lot of special guys in this group with a lot of special talents beside football.”

Tanner Fernung, top center, with painting workshop students at a rehabilitation center in Kokomo, Indiana.

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