MLK vs. Old English: A letter from Living Walls artist Hugh Leeman

Editor's note: As part of this weekend's Living Walls conference, San Francisco-based artist Hugh Leeman was slated to fill the Sound Table's Boulevard-facing exterior wall with a mural honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Here, he recounts how an Old English ad on a portion of the same wall nearly prevented his mural from happening.


  • Courtesy Hugh Leeman

This mural (right) sits a block between the Martin Luther King Jr. historical society and Dr. King's birth house, overlooking the heart of the MLK Jr. district of Atlanta. Initially I was given permission to do this mural by the restaurant owners of The Sound Table, who lease this building. Just before my arrival in Atlanta from San Francisco, I found this permission had been revoked by the building's owner who permits and profits from this Old English ad on his building. The ad agency in no way would allow any infringement on its space on this wall even an MLK mural on his own doorstep.

My plane had arrived in Atlanta much later than expected due to an emergency landing in Wichita, Kan. Finally in Atlanta, I dropped my bags and walked at 1 a.m. to the restaurant calling its owners on the way. Wanting to hear why my permission had been revoked in person, I received an interesting twist of fate as one of the owners had gone to R.I.S.D. with Shepard Fairey and could appreciate this mural's value.

The Sound Table's open mind and ability to see away an injustice served by the hands of corporate advertising are what initially and finally made this mural possible. In between a property owner, and ad agency, and an ad so distastefully placed in this historic district had blocked our permission.


  • Courtesy Hugh Leeman

Word spread fast through the neighborhood that scaffolding and a giant MLK mural were going up. As art holds the beautiful potential to interpretation we began hearing this is great but why is it next to an "Old E" advertisement — that's not cool. So initially cock blocked by Old E then forced to downsize the mural by more than half only to have the mural interpreted as slander towards him and all he represents. We saw this as a beautiful opportunity to start a dialogue among all those who saw this mural and ad next to one another.

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