Hebru Brantley"s back in ATL

Chicago artist's mural at the Sound Table to coincide with venue's anniversary

Is love the basis of our humanity? It's a concept that humans have grappled with since the beginning of time, and one that will be brought to life in Old Fourth Ward on May 2, when celebrated artist Hebru Brantley brings his popular work "A Dedication" to life, using one of the most prominent outdoor canvases in Atlanta — a wall at the Sound Table.

Sponsored by Heineken and produced by AllWays Open (the collective behind Brantley's popular 2013 Atlanta show, Penny Candy, which drew more than 2,000 art enthusiasts to the Loews Hotel in Midtown), Brantley's mural, "A Dedication Two," is sure to foster a carnal response, as his work tends to do. The mural also comes just in time to mark the popular establishment's fifth anniversary.

"Hebru enjoys painting youthful characters and vibrant colors in his artwork, as well fantastical and positive imagery that encourages everyone to dream, make moves, unify and think, and we trust every viewer of this mural will take all of these mental benefits from it," says Dennis Malcolm Byron of AllWays Open, adding that the project is also supported by District 2 city councilman Kwanza Hall.

Using vibrant, fantastical images of children to catapult his sociopolitical messages by making them easily accessible, the message Brantley's imparting with this mural is all about the struggle to be loved — however that may be interpreted.

"With the location being in Old Fourth Ward and the rich historical context of that area, I wanted to create something that speaks to the idea of love," says Brantley, who graduated from Clark Atlanta University with a B.A. in film and sold his very first painting in 2002 to Atlanta's DJ Drama. "The idea can be interpreted as the love between a man and a woman or a relative, but it's really expressing the idea of love in relation to people of color, or the lack thereof in those neighborhoods."

Often propelled by his marquee creation, a character named "Flyboy," Brantley describes his work as pop-infused contemporary art, drawing direct influence from Japanese anime and the creations of street artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who he discovered at 16 when his mother gave him a book of the artist's work. Deeming Basquiat a "rock star," Brantley's work is also visceral and engaging, invoking feelings of youthful optimism that's balanced with a thought-provoking narrative speaking to race, oppression, and opportunity.

Growing up in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, Brantley was also influenced by murals from the Afro-Cobra movement, which popped up on the city's south side, and spent a lot of time in his youth finding trains and cars to tag with his work. But ultimately, it was his disappointment with the lack of black characters in popular culture that would propel his artistic inclinations and vision.

"There weren't any cool black comic characters," he remembers. "The characters that were there were created by white guys in a creative circle creating what they thought blacks were like. So I looked throughout history and gave the character a historical and cultural context."

With that in mind, Brantley's Flyboy is fashioned after the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of men he found both endlessly interesting and inspiring.

"The Tuskegee Airmen were fighters and they were given responsibility and power when black men weren't given much of anything. To me, that spoke volumes," he says. "So my interpretation of that is more youthful and whimsical. I don't necessarily even see my characters as kids — they mostly just represent this idea of innocence."

And therein lies the key to Brantley's brilliance. He's able to illustrate complex ideas in a way that resonates in their simplicity. The boldness of his works, the lucid colors, and the illustrative qualities that mingle with more daring concepts make Brantley's pieces relatable, regardless of cultural background, essentially inspiring viewers to tap into their inner kid.

"Adults are jaded," Brantley contends. "When you're a kid you believe you can do anything; you're still at the point where things are obtainable. Until I was 14, I believed that if I concentrated hard enough, I could levitate. I think that with the style that I use, the kids become approachable, no matter what the tone or context of the piece. And after you're pulled in, you may be able to see what the deeper meaning is of the work."

To date, Brantley's work has been exhibited throughout the U.S. as well as in London and at Switzerland's Art Basel, and he's collaborated with brands including Nike and Adidas. His work also hangs in the home of megastars like Jay-Z.

"I deal with so many different themes and ideas throughout different shows and works," Brantley says. "Overall, it's me expressing what and who I am through the art."