From the Krog Street murals to the iconic mural of the late Congressman John Lewis on Auburn Avenue, it seems as if Atlanta is fast becoming a free-wall city – and the trend shows no signs of abating.
In Atlanta, we see murals in every neighborhood, on practically every thoroughfare, representing the spirit of the community and often serving as a voice for artists – across generations, expertise and method.
In 2012, the nonprofit Living Walls commissioned French artist Pierre Roti to paint a mural in Southwest Atlanta. Roti spent more than a month painting the mural – a hybrid creature that was part human, part alligator and part fish. Many in that community found the painting repulsive, even satanic. It wasn’t long before residents who did not like the mural took to it with gray paint. Countering their actions, those who liked the mural showed up to remove the gray paint.
An important element of the skirmish was the question of how Living Walls secured permission to commission the work in the first place. Further, the wall on which Roti painted the mural was Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) property and questions arose within the community as to whether GDOT issued a permit to Living Walls.
Five years later, in 2017, the Atlanta street artist community questioned having to follow the City of Atlanta public art on private property ordinance. The ordinance outlined a process which artists had to follow to have their murals approved, and it involved city council. Many artists saw this as an infringement of their First Amendment rights – particularly as it related to private property – and sought legal action against the city. Ultimately, the case was settled, and the City of Atlanta agreed not to enforce the public art on private property ordinance.
These two experiences, among a few others, helped city stakeholders understand that there were different points of view that needed to be considered regarding murals.
In the aftermath, community residents would learn the difference between street art, graffiti, and the criminal activity of tagging. They also learned about the important role art can play in neighborhoods. Further, the street art community developed a broader understanding of the intricacies of city government and the responsibility city officials have to their large and diverse constituencies.
In the ensuing years, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs’ public art festival, ELEVATE, has served a vital role in educating the public about street art. Additionally, the festival has provided an important platform for muralists. Since 2011, ELEVATE has commissioned murals throughout the city and this year, as in past years, muralists figured prominently in ELEVATE programming. Our office continues to partner with and support local artists. We also have worked with France-Atlanta to bring street artists from our sister city, Toulouse, to create murals during previous festivals.
Many in Atlanta appreciate and value street artists and the work they create. Some may, at first, consider it out of place – perhaps even jarring. However, art and public expression are etched in our DNA. Some of our earliest memories as human beings are comprised of drawing on walls. Atlanta is a city in which those early human instincts are alive and well.
In fact, Atlanta recently achieved the milestone of having one thousand documented murals. To see where they are located visit streetartmap.org. Indeed, there are murals, murals everywhere.