Living Walls splits community

Some residents in Pittsburgh neighborhood call imagery demonic”“

Laketa Givens was impressed when, earlier this summer, French artist Pierre Roti waved cans of spray paint over the long, barren wall located down the street from her home in southwest Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood. For a month, the 23-year-old street artist who’s painted murals throughout Paris and the United States, worked on his 240-foot piece depicting a grandiose fantasy scene of an urban machine producing a man with a crocodile head.

“I watched him paint that with his hands,” Givens, who’s lived in Pittsburgh for three years, says with a hint of awe about the piece, which was created as part of Living Walls Concepts, a year-round version of the annual summer street art conference hosted by the nonprofit public art organization Living Walls.

Not all of Pittsburgh’s residents were as impressed as Givens, however. On the morning of Nov. 9, a group of at least four community members illegally covered up the mural with gray paint, claiming it was “demonic” and not approved by the community. Mural supporters quickly rallied to wash off the still-wet paint and were ultimately offered a hand from Georgia Department of Transportation work crews. Facebook groups and blog post comment sections became battlegrounds, ultimately leading to a heated press conference Mon., Nov. 12, that had to be dispersed by Atlanta Police.

The dispute — the second sparked by a mural painted as part of the wildly popular, award-winning arts program — has once again resulted in calls for a dialogue about what role the community should play in public art. But getting answers from the city about what happened, and what happens next, hasn’t been easy.

“Everyone has tried to run from this situation,” says Doug Dean, a former state lawmaker and one of the Pittsburgh residents who painted over the mural.

Religious leanings aside, the reason the mural’s future has been called into question mainly has to do with ownership of the wall. Until late last week, no one could clearly say who owned it. The property at 245 University Avenue belongs to the owners of Carey Executive Limousine, the business that occupies the lot. But the retaining wall that abuts the property belongs to the GDOT, or at least part of it does, the agency says.

In addition, there’s confusion over whether the process the city advised Living Walls to follow is correct. Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who represents the area that includes Pittsburgh, says that Living Walls needed to get an OK from her and her colleagues. (Living Walls did receive approval from the city’s department of transportation, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission, and the Office of Cultural Affairs.) According to Monica Campana, Living Walls founder and executive director, that requirement was never ordered by the city.

Fast forward to last week, when the city informed Living Walls that the wall was actually owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which has strict criteria dictating what can appear on its walls. The paperwork error meant that the original painting was illegal. The city decided with little discussion that the artwork should be removed, an announcement that spurred mural supporters to start an online petition that quickly collected more than 2,000 signatures.

Today, Roti’s mural is dull in some areas thanks to the small group of Pittsburgh residents’ haphazard, unpermitted attempt to paint over the piece on Nov. 9, and the subsequent response by arts advocates and community members who tried to undo the damage.

What was intended as an effort to bring art to an underserved community that’s seen and strives for better days was instead considered an eyesore by some community members, specifically, a group of ministers who preach in the neighborhood.

“When folks in this community see a big snake, the interpretation is that they see a serpent and the serpent represents Satan,” says the Rev. Frank Brown of the Concerned Black Clergy, a well-connected coalition of Atlanta’s African-American ministers. “And when you see images of dragons consuming people, it brings to mind the type of destruction the neighborhood’s seeking to eliminate.”

For others, it was the feeling that a group of outsiders was imposing its idea of art on the neighborhood. “I think it was one group felt that they knew better than another and that wasn’t right,” says Micah Rowland, who chairs the Neighborhood Planning Unit that includes Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, and Adair Park. Residents of the predominantly African-American neighborhood stress they’re not anti-art. They’re just anti-Roti’s mural and wish they would’ve been more involved. They don’t think the art represents the community, which was founded in the late 1800s by former slaves and has spent the last few decades trying to combat foreclosures, mortgage fraud, flippers, vacant homes and the various social ills — prostitution, drugs, squatters — that accompany them.

“For some individuals in the neighborhood, it’s the idea that, if we allow people to just continue to move in our neighborhood and do whatever, then we’ll never be able to garner the community strength to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to build a safer, vibrant, more thriving neighborhood,” says LaShawn Hoffman of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, which serves as the de facto neighborhood association.

Winslow maintains that Living Walls didn’t follow the process, although it did meet the guidelines Campana says the organization was advised to follow by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs Director, Camille Russell Love. And Winslow acknowledges residents were wrong to slap paint on the retaining wall to cover the mural.

In December, Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd will absorb Pittsburgh into her district, which includes Capitol View and Capitol View Manor, the two neighborhoods that strongly supported Roti’s mural. She and Winslow plan to gather the communities to discuss the artwork. They also intend to introduce legislation requiring artists seeking to paint murals to first be presented to the community. Some residents, including Hoffman, hope the different sides can have an actual dialogue.

“How do we use this event to unite us as a community, not divide us?” he says. “How do we start working through those other barriers that this incident brought up? How do we bring people to our neighborhood? How do we get people to respect our neighborhood? More importantly, how do we unite communities?”

Campana says this incident has convinced her and the organization to revise the process they use to select sites and reach out to the community, a move which Hoffman thinks is smart.

“I understand where Living Walls is coming from, wanting to bring art to underserved communities,” he says. “But without having a conversation about what that art means for that neighborhood, I think they’re going to continue to run into these kinds of instances.”

Whether the city will refine its process as well remains to be seen. Requests for comment on the issue — and the fate of the mural — had not been returned as of press time.