When the Living Walls street art conference kicked off in Atlanta last summer, there was a lot of talk of turning blight into beauty. Residents were told that street artists from across the world would fly into the city wielding spray cans almost as magic wands, bringing color to dilapidated walls and connecting people in rundown communities.
Living Walls, a nonprofit arts group that aims to connect street artists with urban planners, did indeed bring dozens of street artists and graffiti writers to Atlanta, a city with one of the country’s highest foreclosure rates. Volunteers worked hard to secure business owners’ permission and official city permits for a series of new murals, hoping they would uplift neighborhoods, bring residents together, even invigorate local economies.
That narrative, however, unraveled last month when four people with roller brushes walked up to one of Living Walls’ most ambitious works, a 240-foot mural by French street artist Pierre Roti, and buffed it with grey paint.
Within minutes, people spilled out of their cars, shaking their fists. "You had no right to paint it over," one man yelled.
"You had no right to paint it in the first place," replied one of the vandals, a retired state legislator.
The group that painted over the artwork, which depicts a man with a crocodile head emerging from a gothic cityscape, complained it went up without the support of the community of Pittsburgh, a historic African-American neighborhood just south of downtown.
The debate that followed was more surreal than mural, ranging from snakes and Satan to free speech and property rights. Police cars pulled up, sirens blaring. Politicians demanded arrests. Supporters of the artwork, meanwhile, descended on the mural from all over the community to try to scrub off the wet paint.
Street art has long had a strained relationship with the public, with illegal graffiti and tags considered symbols of urban decay. But that relationship has become more complicated as a new generation of street artists teams up with officials and businesses on legally sanctioned projects to revitalize public space.
R. J. Rushmore, editor of Vandalog, a website chronicling street art, believes street artists should be spontaneous and "just go ahead and do it," rather than get bogged down in public consultations. But he admits there's a risk critics might see the new era of legal street art as 21st century 'plop art,' works thoughtlessly dropped in public space without reference to their surroundings. "We can’t just say, ‘We’re putting this mural here and you’re going to like it!’ If the community hates it, what should be done?"
In the last year, disputes have flared across the country: In Rochester, New York, a mural of two bears commissioned by a group called WALL\THERAPY upset some residents who thought the bears were engaging in a sex act. In Boston, a vast piece by Brazilian artists Os Gemeos was said to be celebrating terrorism. In Sarasota, Florida, a work by French artist MTO was buffed over after complaints that it glorified gang warfare in the gateway to a black neighborhood.
Since it was founded in 2009, Living Walls has largely managed to avoid these tensions, successfully commissioning more than 60 murals across Atlanta. It wasn’t until the group ventured into poorer neighborhoods south of the city, however, that it encountered problems. This was partly because residents there were less receptive to street artists coming into their communities without consultation, and also because the murals were bolder and more complex than some in other parts of the city.
In August, residents of Chosewood Park, a lower income neighborhood in Southeast Atlanta, complained about a mural painted by Argentinean artist Hyuro. The stark black and white piece, rendered in 37 frames, showed a nude woman grow fur and shed her coat, which morphed into a wolf.
Some residents thought Hyuro’s piece was indecent, particularly on a wall opposite a church and a mosque. Others said they would prefer something more bright and uplifting, and questioned why the mural had been commissioned without neighborhood input. Eventually, after the local neighborhood association voted against Hyuro’s work, Living Walls volunteers buffed over the piece.
"It hurt so much to paint over the wall," said Monica Campana, executive director of Living Walls, in a statement. “For the first time I felt like I had to censor myself. It was a weird feeling, a confusing and ugly feeling that I never want to experience again.”
At the same time, Roti was working just a couple of miles west, in Pittsburgh, on a mural he described as an allegory of the human city. Residents from all over Southwest Atlanta had welcomed him with plates of home-cooked food and bottles of water. His work, they believed, enhanced the dilapidated University Avenue, beautifying the gateway to a host of intown neighborhoods.
That enthusiasm, however, was not shared by some residents of Pittsburgh, a community struggling with vacant properties, mortgage fraud and crime. Some thought the mural was satanic, while others wondered how it related to their history as one of Atlanta’s oldest African-American communities. Why, they asked, had there been so little consultation?
"Pittsburgh is not against art," said Douglas Dean, the former state representative, after he buffed over the mural. "We just don’t think that the artist represents our community. All these departments of city government signed off on this, but no one talked to anyone in the neighborhood."
As the debate quickly spiraled out of control – a press conference had to be broken up by police - both sides have fixated on legal minutiae: Who owns the wall? Who approved the mural? Did Living Walls follow proper protocol?
Even though supporters managed to salvage most of Roti’s mural, its future looks bleak. The wall, it turns out, is owned not by the business that approved the mural, but by the Georgia Department of Transportation. Last week, a spokesman for GDOT confirmed department plans to paint over the mural by the end of the year, on the basis that Living Walls did not secure a proper permit. The department’s public art policy, a spokesman noted, prevents them from approving works that "could potentially divide a community."
As street artists adopt increasingly frenetic schedules, hopscotching across the globe to work on commissions, they face challenges in connecting with local communities. In Roti’s case, Living Walls presented a document containing a sketch and an artist’s statement to the owner of the business next to the wall, as well as three local departments – the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, Department of Transportation and Urban Design Commission. But that process didn’t create an opportunity for Roti to interact with Pittsburgh residents as he came up with his design. While the non-profit describes its mission as to "create a more intimate relationship" between artists and the community, that relationship seems to have begun only when Roti stood on University Avenue holding a spray can.
Part of the problem in connecting with the public, says University of North Carolina professor Michael Kelly, who has written on public art controversies, is there’s no one 'public opinion.' Artists have to understand they’re stepping into uncertain territory without being so conciliatory that they avoid controversy, or so rigid that they insist on the autonomy of the art.
"What do you do if you offer some food to somebody, and you’re trying to get them to experience new things, but they don’t like the food?" he says. "You have to have comeback. You can’t just say, ‘You people are children!’ There has to be a way of discussing it."
Across the country, there have been a variety of outcomes to disputes about commissioned street art. When residents of Rochester, New York, complained about that mural of bears, the city left it up to the property owner’s discretion, arguing it had no jurisdiction over the mural. In Boston, when the local FOX television station aired a story critical of Os Gemeos’ colorful mural of a cartoon-like figure in what appeared to be a headscarf, the city’s mayor appealed for tolerance.
Back in Atlanta, City Council member Joyce Sheperd plans to introduce legislation requiring artists to present public art proposals to the community. Campana worries that mandating approval from local neighborhood planning units could take away from a work's dynamic edge. Street artists don’t need to engage with the public any more than they do, she believes, because their art “is already interacting with communities."
Plenty of residents in the Pittsburgh neighborhood were disappointed to hear the mural would most likely be painted over. "That’s real messed up," says Britney Andrews, a 22-year-old business student who sat on her front porch on University Avenue. "We should have a say. We walk past that wall every day. We’re still trying to figure out what it means!"
Whatever the meaning of Roti’s piece, Andrews says, it was better than all the illegal graffiti up and down the street.
"It’s creative, not like all this other raggedy stuff," says her friend, Gina Johnson, pointing at the ramshackle building across the street, a former pickup truck sales store covered in tags and peeling paint. "We need more art in the community."
A few blocks west on University Avenue, Robert Hunter, owner of the Breakfastville Lunch and BBQ, says he hopes new art will come to the wall, and that future artists will try to engage more with residents. "It just needs to be something that people can understand," he says, "something that represents the community rather than just one artist’s state of mind."
UPDATE TUESDAY 12:45 PM EDT: A Georgia Department of Transportation crew arrived on the scene and began painting over the mural.
Right inset and top: Workers attempt to restore the Roti mural in Atlanta after it was buffed over by protesters. (Chris Herrin)