Living Walls and the Perils of Public Space

Recent mural dustups reveal the unfortunate truth that we lack a language of compromise


  • Dustin Chambers
  • UNDER SIEGE: Pittsburgh residents buff Roti’s mural along University Avenue without permission.The perils of public space

This article was originally published in BURNAWAY magazine in two parts on Jan. 11 and 17.

When the French street artist known as Roti painted his mural “An Allegory of the Human City” in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Southwest Atlanta, he assumed everyone would understand it as a commentary on the brutality of capitalism. They did not. That, at least, is apparently what he told the New York Times.

Instead, the mural was decried by a vocal coterie of residents as containing “demonic” imagery reminiscent of the pervasive destruction the neighborhood has suffered. It’s clear that not all of Pittsburgh’s residents shared that interpretation, but it was the one adopted by high-profile residents, including a former state representative, Doug Dean, and the Atlanta-based group Concerned Black Clergy.

The dustup isn’t the only such controversy to ruffle feathers in this country. It’s not even the first for Living Walls, the mural’s sponsoring organization. Last fall, a Living Walls mural in Chosewood Park by Argentinean street artist Hyuro that depicted a woman shedding her clothes met with confusion, disdain, and outrage resulting in a formal request for its removal. Beyond Atlanta, street art powerhouses Os Gêmeos created a mural in Boston depicting a figure that was said to look too much like a terrorist. One in St. Paul was decried for its depiction of two bears looking suspiciously amorous. And in 2011, a mural on the outer wall of LA MOCA by renowned Italian street artist Blu was famously painted over, before the first peep of outrage, because director Jeffrey Deitch feared the mural might cause offense to someone, somewhere, someday.

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