Six questions that blow our mind about the city's anti-graffiti task force

Figuring out how Atlanta plans to draw the line between vandalism and art

In mid-December, the arts community was surprised to learn that the city had revived its defunct anti-graffiti task force – and that the task force was seeking, through the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, a list of graffiti art and murals worthy of being spared. The great scrub of Atlanta's bridges, walls and public property, to be carried out by city employees and inmate labor and done in conjunction with community groups, is set to begin late next month.

1) Is this the upshot of some pissed-off neighborhood group? And does Atlanta really have a graffiti problem? (Yes, we know that's technically two questions.)

No, the anti-graffiti task force's mission has nothing to do with vocal neighborhood groups (not that they're not worked up about graffiti). In late June, after Mayor Kasim Reed appointed a new commissioner of parks, recreation and cultural affairs, the TV news crews immediately came calling about graffiti at southwest Atlanta's Mozley Park. Parks commissioner George Dusenbury — who prior to joining City Hall headed up greenspace advocacy group Park Pride — made it a goal to eliminate graffiti at all city parks and rec centers. Wanting to turn the mission into a citywide effort, the commissioner revived the task force, whose members include city departments, Atlanta Police brass, Atlanta Public Schools officials, Keep Atlanta Beautiful and CSX. (The shipping company has experience with taggers targeting their railcars and rail yards.)

As for whether Atlanta is particularly plagued by graffiti ... ask task force supporters and you'll hear about the "broken windows theory" — the argument that by immediately addressing visible signs of blight, cities ultimately reduce crime. "Graffiti can lead to situations where people feel unsafe," Dusenbury says. "And it has a tendency to lower property values." Says Chief Patrick Labat, who heads the city's department of corrections: "Graffiti in and of itself breeds other graffiti. What we're saying here is: It doesn't matter how much graffiti you put out, we'll be right behind you. It goes beyond just removing graffiti. It goes into enforcement of applicable laws."

It should be noted that Keep Atlanta Beautiful says only 10 percent of the city's graffiti is believed to be gang-related. And anyone who's been to Detroit or Los Angeles can tell you Atlanta isn't exactly brimming with gang-related tags.

2) So is the city planning to whitewash every graffiti-graced wall in Atlanta?

Not all of them, say Dusenbury and Camille Russell Love, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs director. The city's initial focus is public property, which includes parks, rec centers, retaining walls, street signs and utility poles. Murals or artwork commissioned by local governments or private property owners won't be affected. It remains to be seen, however, what lengths the city will go to ascertain whether graffiti is commissioned.

Take heart: The ever-changing canvas lining the Krog Street tunnel is safe. Dusenbury says there have been discussions about Atlanta City Council designating the tunnel a protected piece of public art. However, Keep Atlanta Beautiful's Executive Director Peggy Denby would prefer the walls flanking the tunnel's exterior remain clean. Also, the Art on the Beltline project, which featured murals and installations by local artists along the future 22-mile transit loop, were commissioned and therefore are outside the task force's scope. Same goes for murals painted during August's Living Walls street art conference. However, protection is not necessarily extended to the noncommissioned but equally impressive work done throughout Atlanta by Living Walls' international attendees.

3) Who makes the call between what graffiti art will be saved and what gets the scrub? Is the city going to make the determination of what constitutes "art"?

Actually, you make the call. Sort of. The Office of Cultural Affairs has partnered with nonprofit arts organization WonderRoot to help identify worthy pieces of noncommissioned art, which it will put on a tentative list. Dusenbury stresses that the list "won't be set in stone" and that works could be added or removed. You can add to that list.

Aside from reaching out to arts groups, there's been very little public involvement in distinguishing between vandalism and art that, though technically illegal, is worth preserving. It's also unclear whether the task force will take into account areas local graffiti artists consider "free walls." According to Love, that might be a "future initiative."

One graf artist contacted by CL says the city's proposed approach is somewhat progressive. It's less stringent than what you'd find in New York, where city laws prohibit people under the age of 18 from purchasing spray paint cans and broad-tipped markers. (Hell, a Queens councilman in 2005 tried to pull permits for an art festival featuring graffiti art.)

But WonderRoot's Chris Appleton — who says it's a no-brainer that something offensive on the side of a community center should be buffed over — wonders if anyone, including himself, should be making judgment calls about what is or isn't art. "It's confusing to me that a task force and city resources have to be organized and allocated to decide 'let's paint grey over something offensive,'" he says. "The rest? Leave it. If there are resources that exist to paint walls in Atlanta, why are we not paying artists to put up public art that we know curbs offensive tagging, beautifies the city and makes Atlanta's street life more vibrant?"

4) Who's going to remove all this graffiti and how much will that cost?

The city first hopes to offer resources to neighborhoods, as it's started doing by storing graffiti-removal kits at six rec centers. (Feel free to borrow one at Lang Carson, Adamsville, Ben Hill, Collier and Dunbar/Rosel Fann.) And the city's department of corrections will allow nonviolent inmates to clean up graffiti. Dusenbury says that according to his office's estimates, the parks department has invested approximately $30,000 in the effort.

5) Why does the anti-graffiti task force need a list of street art worth saving by its Jan. 19 meeting? Isn't an inventory of that scope worthy of months of consideration?

The task force might realize that when it meets. Until the Office of Cultural Affairs finalizes the list, Labat says, his department and the inmate labor force will have "enough graffiti in parks and on public property to remove where we can make an impact immediately instead of waiting on some of these things to happen."

6) Isn't part of the awesomeness of graffiti art the element of reclaiming derelict, abandoned walls and doing something cool, if not profound, with them? Should we be worried that this flies in the face of the need for more public art in Atlanta?

Yes. And yes.

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