Cover Story - Living Walls
Street artists are descending on the city for a weekend of mural-painting and trouble-making. Will Atlanta even notice?
When Atlanta graffiti artist Juse tagged the tower of City Hall East on Ponce de Leon Avenue in June — a move that, at 150 feet above a busy thoroughfare, was as precarious as it was ballsy — two questions immediately rippled through the city: How did he pull that off? And for a city with a mostly polite constituency of street artists, wasn't that kind of a shitty thing to do?
Most who voiced an opinion took the expected "defacing public buildings ain't cool" position, while some Juse supporters made the just-as-predictable decision to defend Juse's act as a totally respectable move. Graffiti is a game, after all, and Juse was showing off.
This debate is by no means new — people have been arguing about where to draw the line with graffiti ever since spray paint hit the shelves — but for whatever reason, Atlanta is seriously obsessed with chiming in on street art these days.
The Atlanta street art scene hasn't spawned the kind of work present in more public-art-friendly cities around the world — you know, like Sao Paulo's nurturing of Os Gemeos and Bologna's acceptance of Blu. And rather than boasting insightful expressions of dissent or playfulness, the Atlanta scene is marked by a trickle of hasty tags punctuated by the occasional piece of artistically solid work. The city's official stance exists somewhere between disdain and tolerance.
So naturally, Atlanta's not exactly on the radar dominated by badass street art cities including Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona and New York. But hey, Atlanta's still going through major cultural growing pains. It's not on any major art radars, save the occasional blips of awesomeness that remind the rest of the world we actually have artists.
For the past nine months, a small team of Atlanta artists — including Monica Campana and Blacki Migliozzi — has been quietly making moves to organize what very possibly could be a single weekend that changes all of this. Thanks to the work of the team, an influential collective of artists and thinkers from across the globe will be invading Atlanta with the intention not just of throwing up some dope art, but of making the city's inhabitants start noticing their surroundings in a more intimate way.
After months of fundraising, visa applications, crossed fingers, calling in of favors, and general good luck, more than 15 of the world's most prolific and acclaimed street artists are traveling to Atlanta for Living Walls, the City Speaks, a three-day conference on street art and urbanism that kicks off Aug. 13. But this ain't your grandaddy's urbanism conference. Living Walls is part gallery exhibition, part lecture series, part international consortium, and part trouble-making.
Beyond the confines of the conference, out-of-town artists will spend a week hitting local street art stomping grounds, as well as testing the limits of what hasn't been done here. While businesses have donated more than a dozen walls to be transformed into new murals ... well, let's just say you can't bring this many feisty art vandals into a fresh city and not expect a heady dose of unsanctioned side projects. With that much new paint running around town, you can guarantee the local graf kids will be stepping up their game, too. Everyone is coming out to play this week, and the city will likely look noticeably different when they're finished.
Between the gallery show at Eyedrum, and the organizers having secured more than a dozen walls for mural projects, there are dozens of artists from Atlanta and abroad participating in the conference, with more artists still signing on. With an all-but-certain glut of unofficial participants creating street art works during the event, it's hard to get a handle on just how many collaborators and crashers will show up. Suffice it to say there are going to be a hell of a lot of them.
Some big names are included in the lineup: New York-based Gaia is notorious for his muted wheatpaste works that depict both humans and animals in startlingly gritty and emotional ways; Israel's Know Hope creates work that's — how should we put this? — like Shel Silverstein on acid; Chris Stain, who grew up in Baltimore, boldly reps the working man with his bold stencils and wheatpasted works, while mixing in powerfully hopeful statements about life and love.
While the action to watch might be on the streets, there are other, perhaps more legit goings-on worth attending. Nonprofit indie art space Eyedrum will play host to dozens of artists who couldn't physically participate in Living Walls but contributed posters and wheatpaste works for the gallery exhibition. The show promises to be a mixed bag, with a diverse group of artists given complete freedom to send in whatever the they want. And Georgia Tech's Architecture Department will hold a series of lectures on urbanism and transportation, as well as a keynote address by guerrilla advertising interventionist Jordan Seiler of NYC's Public Ad Campaign.
Street art festivals like Living Walls have grown increasingly frequent in recent years. But as much as investigating what is happening at these events and within the artist communities that organize them, there is also the question of why.
Last year, Costa Rica native Blacki Migliozzi spent time studying in Barcelona, a city internationally regarded as one of the world's graffiti capitals. While there, he worked as a teaching assistant in a class that focused on New Urbanism — something he knew little about, but ended up resonating with him in a surprising way.
"I couldn't stop thinking about public spaces, art, and urban development," Migliozzi says. "Looking at the city through the lens of graffiti, that's really where the Living Walls concept came from."
The timing was good: Migliozzi, back from Spain, began conspiring with Lima, Peru, native and Atlanta-based artist Monica Campana, who was hot to put a fire under the ass of the local street art scene. In two days, the duo threw together a proposal for a gallery show at Eyedrum, and Living Walls was officially rolling.
Expecting that they would have to beg for both space and artist participation, Campana and Migliozzi decided to aim as high as possible with the hope of landing somewhere slightly north of mediocrity. That's not exactly how it played out.
"We thought, well fuck, we might as well try to get this great artist, or this amazing wall, because we didn't think anyone would say yes," Campana recalls. "But everyone ended up saying yes."
In recent years, events like Artlantis and Gather Atlanta have allowed artists to organize and collaborate in ways previously unseen in Atlanta. Living Walls is a natural progression of that. Eyedrum executive director Priscilla Smith is an unofficial third partner, and additional support has materialized in the form of supplies and manpower from arts collective Dodekapus and local art supply store Sam Flax.
As the conference evolved, the topic of urban development and the open consideration of public spaces became increasingly crucial to explore. Atlanta is a hotspot for this discussion. In May, the CNU 18, a conference on New Urbanism, selected Atlanta for its annual get-together. But many of those who would benefit from the discourse were turned off by the $300-per-day cost. Inspired by the notion that people other than wealthy architects and urban planners should lend a hand in shaping their environment, Living Walls organizers put the conference together as a more accessible answer to the CNU 18.
If ever there was a city in greater flux in terms of cultural identity, Atlanta is it. Consider for a moment Atlanta's public transportation plight: MARTA is one of the least comprehensive public transportation structures in the country. And the proposed transit loop that would be built along the Beltline, while being a relatively profound step toward remedying this situation, is still years from completion. As a result, Atlanta is a city of cars.
If you spend your time between destinations in what quite literally is a bubble, you detach from your surroundings. In a greater sense, the Living Walls organizers are attempting to not only execute this one mad dash to throw up art around the city, but to hopefully open the eyes of the bubble-bound denizens of Atlanta and encourage them to get more up close and personal with their surroundings.
Once all the artists are in town, organizers and volunteers will work together on the logistical execution of completing an almost absurd amount of art in just a few days. Volunteers are opening their homes to out-of-town artists, committing to ferrying them to and from their mural sites and generally showing them a good time. It's sort of a street artist foster program. Atlanta-based participants like Jason Kofke, Michi Meko, and the Paper Twins will give visiting artists the lay of the land for extracurricular street art projects.
"People want something like Living Walls to be happening," Campana says. "It's exciting and important. That's why they help."
Currently, Atlanta's most successful street art scene can be found along the Krog Street tunnel in Cabbagetown. The tunnel's walls and the train trestle above them have housed beloved murals, most notably of the actor Robert Mitchum, and social discourse along the lines of "FU BP."
Yet even the friendliest of the city's graffiti walls has the tendency to be redrawn as a battle line. Easing those tensions is central to Living Walls' quest.
In 2008, the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association declared a call to arms on the wall flanking the south side of the Krog tunnel, beginning the now-notorious green paint campaign during which a faction of residents covered up several murals (and some tags) with rollers of mint-hued latex. Since that time, concerned neighbors have buffed out graffiti on the wall almost the minute it appears.
Even when public art is legally permitted, there are still territorial clashes between the graffiti artists whose pieces first graced a wall and the sanctioned artists whose works were commissioned to cover them. Seminal Atlanta graf writer BORN learned this firsthand when his nine-year-old piece near Ponce de Leon Avenue was recently painted over to make way for the Beltline's Global Garden Project. Many were incensed by the casual dismissal of this long-standing piece, throwing accusations at Beltline officials of snobbery and ignorance of the city's public art subculture.
Moving forward, there are many questions to ask, the answers to which will likely play a strong role in the shaping the Living Walls legacy, not to mention the eventual identity of public art in Atlanta. What is the best use of public space? Whose taste gets priority when it comes to filling the public arena with images? Why should graffiti be banned when just as many people find an overabundance of advertisements unsightly? And would the quality of street art be better if it were legal?
Most of all, do Atlantans even give a shit about public art, or will they be content to stay in their cars and ignore the world around them?
Migliozzi and Campana really just wanted to have a kick-ass art show — but they aren't blind to what this conference could signify to a city still struggling with its cultural identity.
"Taking back public space from advertisers is a huge part of graffiti mentality," says Campana. "In Atlanta, there's no real dialogue. The guys with money to buy the ads do all the talking. So street art engages people in a dialogue. It gives them something else to look at."