Arts Issue - Atlanta’s public art past, present, and future potential

A city employee, a neighborhood president, and a local artist open up

When it comes to discussing public art, Michi Meko has a motto: “Graffiti is the only art form that gets an immediate response. You have to respond to it immediately, whether you love it or hate it,” says the Alabama-born transplant and visual artist. Meko’s mantra has traveled with him since his time as a graffiti writer through his transition into work as a commissioned muralist and fine artist. There has been much debate during the last few years around the city and its citizens’ relationships to public art, from Hyuro’s buffed-out wall in Chosewood Park to the more recent #KrogIsNotForSale incident in which artists and neighbors gave a middle finger to a local promoter readying a for a high-priced event in the space by painting over the Krog Tunnel’s graffiti-covered walls. For this conversation about public art’s place in the community, we spoke with Meko; Camille Russell Love, director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs; and Chosewood Park Neighborhood Association President Jim Williamson. In their own words, the artist, the government employee, and the neighbor reflect on Atlanta’s public art past, present, and future potential.

— Gavin Godfrey

Michi Meko, Local multimedia visual artist

I came to Atlanta in 1999. Right around 2004 is when I started coming out and just doing shit in the streets and making a name for myself. At that moment I didn’t see this big acceptance of public art because at that time it was still a lot of bombers, a lot of vandals, and people who were doing “street art” without the recognition. BORN and HENSE — they were going nuts, doing crazy stuff. There was a lot of vibrancy there but it was sort of underground or it wasn’t as public.

There was no “street art.” You’re still a fucking graffiti writer, you’re still a vandal, you’re still taking advantage of public space, and that was the whole key. Now, you have these sanctioned murals ... I think that, in part, comes with the vandals coming out, putting out the work, having it be there, be this force, and be present. Then you have groups like Living Walls, or Peter Ferrari with Forward Warrior, where these organizations are organized and they go out and seek a wall, and sort of get permission to put these pieces up, and now you can get more elaborate works instead of quick bombs or an occasional burner. ... In, like, 2008 a lot of galleries closed. Artists started looking for different ways to keep their art practice, so then you get the groups like the gloATLs and the Dance Trucks and the [[[|Dashboards Co-op], who are like these fucking scrappy little groups who look for alternative ways to present art in public. I think it’s organizations just going the fuck for it, and then the public gets involved with doing it, ya know? I think those organized organizations have helped bring a spotlight to Atlanta’s public arts scene.

Where does the community fit into the conversation of art-making in a public space? It’s a hard conversation to have, and I think the more successful pieces are the ones that consider the neighborhood or consider the community. You know, being an artist, there’s a part of me that’s like, “I’ve got a free wall, I’m going to get loose.” That’s my whole shit is to get loose, whether it hurts your feelings or not, but then you know there’s that duality. ... I think that people just need to be open, and accept art, and accept its challenges because if everything was flowers and cupcakes and all this other bullshit, how boring would that be? You’ve got to have the Paper Franks doing the crazy, snot-bubble kids with the tigers and shit.

Like this fucking kid Gaia. He’s one of the better street muralists at doing works that are poignant to the area he’s working. It doesn’t matter what part of the world he’s in, he always researches that space and that place, and does something for those people and still get his rocks off to paint a 122-foot wall. I think that as the public becomes wiser, artists need to be more tricksterlike, be able to get their message across, but do it in a way that seems friendly or seems less threatening. On the flipside, if we are to be a world-class arts city then you should be able to suck it up and accept it. Because every day there’s billboards: a girl selling you something with some double Ds. You’re not tripping on that! laughs I just hope that the city continues to grow and that the art can be more engaging.

— As told to Gavin Godfrey

Camille Russell Love, Executive Director, Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs

Public art was still viewed as something that was part of a building in 1998. ... The whole definition of public art was changing to becoming more participatory for citizens, by citizens. You had Freedom Park, the beginnings of Art on the Beltline, more temporary installations, and more conversation about public art. We now have so many participants who are presenting art in public spaces: Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, gloATL, Flux, Living Walls.

Those public art projects have really enhanced Atlanta’s reputation as a cultural city. ... Murals on public or private property are very desirable. Graffiti is not. We have challenges with any person who wants to put a mural in the public realm without understanding the process. Cities and governments regulate things for the good of the public. It’s just one of the things that you have to do. ... There have been issues that needed to change. No one owns the public art process within city government. If an office, like our office, owned the process, we could manage and introduce the legislation.

The Hyuro mural was a beautiful work of art. But Living Walls didn’t get the buy-in from the community. An organization thought it knew what was acceptable for that community. In some ways, it’s disrespectful. ... In Pittsburgh, we didn’t really know who owned the wall. We found out Living Walls had not followed their process. If there’s any violation, the owner of the property is the one who has to deal with it, not a Living Walls or an individual artist. It makes you look at the process. ... Communication is always key. If you’re communicating, you get over that hurdle.

Living Walls hasn’t really perfected the art of planning. A grown-up Living Walls would understand and build their business plan to fit the rules. They got approvals from all of the departments but not the certifications. To this day, they have not presented the paperwork for the 2014 conference murals. Their murals were put up without the approval of City Council. If someone wanted to push the envelope, they could go and buff over all of them. But that’s not what we want to do. Hopefully moving forward, we will be able to help those beginning organizations get past their growing pains.

Atlanta is positioned right now to become one of the greatest cities in the world. Grass-roots arts and culture organizations are going to have a real important place in making that happen. ... OCA is funding individual artists. We fund community, fledgling, and mature organizations. We have more money now to reach out to individual artists and encourage them to submit applications. We reach out to communities and say, “You don’t have to be an arts organization. You just have to bring us an art project that you want to put in your community.” So we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications, which is great because we have more money to give. There’s an application process, a panel of citizens that determines who gets funded, and they evaluate whether ... that organization, that individual artist, that project has enough merit and enough value for the city to make an investment in them.

— As told to Max Blau

Jim Williamson, President, Chosewood Park Neighborhood Association

Chosewood Park needed anything to transform that drab depressing concrete where the Hyuro mural had been painted for Living Walls into something more vibrant and energized. I think everyone was excited about that. There has to be a want or desire for public art, either from the community or the owner of the property. The owners were for it. But then the neighborhood kind of wasn’t involved in the process. ... Hyuro’s original design of a series of chairs was approved by the city. Artists got there, saw a different vision for that space, and crossed over a couple lines. The biggest thing on our side was the nudity. It resulted in a lot of discussion. Folks outside the neighborhood were the loudest. We had to muddle through and eventually just voted to remove it.

Was it beautiful? Yes. But it needs to be held in a certain context. You need to understand the area. It needs to be accessible and relational to the neighborhood. A big goal of mine is to have a neighborhood where people of all ages are respected, where all educations are respected, and all income levels and all ethnicities. I’m fighting very hard for that. We’re fighting very hard for that. For that reason, I would say, if art can’t be in a public school or a public park, it probably shouldn’t be done in an area that is private property in Chosewood Park. Now some people would argue if it’s private property, you can do what you want ... There needs to be some common sense there.

I’m disappointed when artists hide behind creative expression as a license to do things without the recognition that there’s a responsibility to neighborhoods. ... The Hyuro mural just didn’t relate to the community. That’s where it was disappointing. I want something that unifies our neighborhoods. We’ve got enough things dividing us. We don’t need any more conflict. ... Somebody told me “art should provoke.” But can’t art unify? True artists last throughout time because there’s something there that’s transcendent, that you can relate to on a human-nature core level, that overcomes any and all language barriers or backgrounds because it’s considered beautiful. Art goes in and out of vogue. But by the same token, art can be very healing. That’s what I was really looking for.

For our new mural by Totem, we reached out to the owners and artists. We got approval through our neighborhood. It went through the NPU. I even took it to other neighborhood groups in making sure that they were OK with it. ... That’s now in the final approval of the city with OCA. I don’t expect there to be any problem. ... We’re trying to incorporate the kids into the design, really trying to define what we want the community to represent. The difference is going to be startling.

— As told to Max Blau