Graffiti wars

Why is the Beltline covering up perfectly good street art?

Just north of Ponce de Leon Avenue, behind the Spot for Dogs canine day care facility, a low retaining wall runs 90 feet along a disused, cement-covered, urban railroad trough. As of late May, the wall’s been painted battleship gray and is now punctuated by a series of small tile mosaics depicting colorful graphic flowers. Some of the flora is native to Georgia. Some is exotic. All of it is cheerily rendered.

The mural is “The Global Garden Project,” the work of Atlanta artists/coordinators Megan Dunkelberg and Karen Cleveland and one of 31 new visual art works commissioned by the Beltline as part of its Art on the Beltline initiative. (Full disclosure: I sat on the panel that selected the performing arts components of the Beltline’s art initiative.) The mosaics were constructed and installed by young people from Refugee Family Services, a local support organization for refugee women and children. The young artists’ names are inscribed to the far left and far right of the mosaic panels in the sort of naively jumbled script that announces “Kids made this.”

“The Global Garden Project” is lovely and innocuous. It’s the sort of incontestable, therapeutic art that foundations and governments have fallen over themselves to fund in the last few decades: nice, press release-friendly ideas with a mild social service veneer untainted by all the naughty stuff that caused so much trouble in the ’80s. That the mural nevertheless finds itself at the center of a minor art-world scuffle has to come as a surprise to the surely well-intentioned artists.

But contested it is. Underneath the battleship gray paint — and consequently destroyed by it — is a large-scale, wildstyle graffiti piece by longtime Atlanta street artist BORN. It first appeared nine years ago and sat undisturbed until it was covered over last month.

Many in Atlanta’s street art community are miffed. And rightfully so. BORN is a well-known graffiti artist who’s a central part of an underground creative ecology that made use of a neglected urban pocket when no one else thought it was worth anything. Atlanta created a huge number of these sorts of in-between non-spaces as it rocketed into modernity and then promptly left them to the weeds once the paradigm was done shifting. Many graffiti artists saw themselves as bringing life back into lifeless places.

Now, as the Beltline tries to tame the urban wilderness, bourgeois notions of progress are smacking up against a vernacular street culture. New artists are moving in and the ones who were already there are feeling threatened.

Let’s be clear: Beltline design director Fred Yalouris and his team at Atlanta BeltLine Inc. have no agenda against graf writers. Beltline volunteers such as Angel Poventud and WonderRoot’s Chris Appleton — neither of whom is being paid for his efforts — have repeatedly defended Atlanta’s street artists. It’s largely thanks to their and others’ efforts that we’re not seeing wholesale “buffing” (painting over) of extant graffiti pieces in the Beltline corridor. Indeed, some of Atlanta’s street art royalty — HENSE, the Paper Twins — are being paid to make new work in sanctioned areas.

All the evidence suggests that the wall behind Ponce represents at worst a blunder, not a conspiracy. The Beltline designers may be clueless, but they’re not evil. And there’s still a reservoir of good will among many in the street art community. By remaining sensitive to the community’s concerns, the Beltline may ensure that this remains merely an isolated incident rather than metastasizing into an ongoing war.

But as a new class of artists jostles for space in a new environment, it will be incumbent upon them to understand that they’re coming into an art world as complex and layered as the ones they’ve immigrated from. The coordinators of “The Global Garden Project” doubtless imagined they were cleaning up the community. But the BORN piece was not some value-reducing gang scrawl on the side of a church or a house. It was a quiet monument in a forgotten ditch; a testament to the creative hand ready to find beauty in what others had thrown away.