Ola Bad’s “Dreamcatchers” project brings a socially engaged, humanistic approach to street art

humanistic approach to street art

Ace lives in a doorway. His bed is a stack of discarded couch cushions and his dresser a white bucket, the kind restaurants get their industrial-sized lard in. Though he’ll be 57 soon, Ace’s unlined skin could easily allow him to pass for a good 10 years younger. The wall of his tiny living room/bedroom/front porch has been marked with a succession of quick, loopy, indecipherable graffiti tags, five or six of them on the wall behind his bed. Ace’s one piece of purposeful decoration is an ethereal, fragile artwork, wheatpasted like a poster on a teenager’s bedroom wall as an emblem of identity and interest. Its delicacy is in stark opposition to the ugly urban wasteland around him. Ace shows the piece off with obvious pride, pointing out the intricacy of the marks — the details in the drawing’s webbed center and in the feathers streaming down from its circular form. “He really took his time doing it,” says Ace. “When he came and put it up, I fell in love with it.”

“It makes me feel good having it there ... it helps me dream,” he says of his Ola Bad “Dreamcatcher” modeled on the Native American totems meant to harness good dreams and keep nightmares at bay.

The artwork, a gesture of hopefulness in the worst of circumstances, was created especially for him by a 23-year-old Marietta kid who goes by the name Ola Bad, an edgy-sounding, slightly badass moniker that actually originated in the artist’s childhood suburban stomping ground — Old Alabama Road.

Ola Bad began creating street art in 2010, when he saw firsthand the immediacy and power of the form during Atlanta’s first Living Walls street art conference last August. He did his first piece of art alongside more seasoned participants Feral Child and Gaia. Until then, he says, “I had no idea what a street artist was.”

Ola Bad’s socially engaged, humanistic approach has already had some real impact: He’s the subject of a slick, engaging short film by local street art promoter Streetela, and received a shout-out last December on the influential Manhattan street art website Wooster Collective. “Because there’s no competition,” he shrugs, of Atlanta’s baby-steps street art scene and his place in it, “that’s the reason why I’ve gotten attention.”

But nothing about Ola Bad says dilettante: His work is done with a serious conceptual art edge, as much about the process of interacting with the homeless as the “Dreamcatchers” themselves. “The putting it up and the relationship is solely it for me,” he says. And he’s a skilled artist, evident in the photorealist Pop Art-evocative “Smile” drawings he’s wheatpasted on buildings and water towers around town.

He ticks off the things he wanted to accomplish when he started making street art: a solo exhibition of his work (coming up in September at ABV Gallery); paint a wall (he’s got one set aside at this August’s Living Walls); a profile in Creative Loafing.

What he didn’t want is the notoriety of being named, along with several well-known Atlanta artists, including Hense and Greg Mike, in a $1 million graffiti lawsuit filed by Edgewood Avenue homeowners Dave MacDonald and Stan Mobley, and Jenkins Metal & Supply. It’s an ironic turn of events; just as Atlanta and the world’s street art star rises in the wake of Banksy’s Academy Award-nominated Exit Through the Gift Shop and the buzz-generating exhibition Art in the Streets, which opened April 17 at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, street art has been dealing with a serious backlash in Atlanta.

“I thought about writing [[[the homeowners] a letter saying I’m sorry, I can take it down,” says Ola Bad. But the artist’s friends and family advised against it.

Lean and boyish, with soft brown eyes, Ola Bad exudes a puppy-like quality. He’s not an utter innocent: He’s dabbled in the dark arts of drugs and theft and goes through Camel soft packs with the ennui of a World War II grunt. But he maintains a guileless, heart-on-his-sleeve attitude that seems utterly incongruous with the dangerous street culture of prostitution and drug use, broken men and lost souls he’s made his compatriots in his “Dreamcatcher” project.

The thing is, he feels connected to those men. Despite his middle-class upbringing — he’s the product of a Marietta teacher mother and earthy salesman dad who grew his own vegetables and kept a compost pile long before it was eco-chic — Ola Bad has had his own brushes with hard times. As a kid, he took church mission trips to Romania and Mexico. He visited orphanages and saw the effects of AIDS and the abysmal treatment of gypsies in Eastern Europe. He got a taste for how different the world could be.

Then there was his three-year stint in an outpatient rehab program to deal with a drug habit he developed at 18 and the unpleasant realization that he had spent an entire year of his life high. The service projects he engaged in during rehab inspired his “Dreamcatcher” work. “I saw art as a really selfish pursuit,” he says. The “Dreamcatchers” were a way to mitigate that feeling. “Right now, street art is just the way I’m trying to do service.”

“For awhile I thought, ‘How can I change their situation?’” he says of the homeless men he’s reached out to such as Ace and Phil and Undertaker. “There’s no way I can do that.” Instead, he hopes the empathy he offers, the idea of a stranger concerned about their well-being, will be the impetus for change.

“Even if they don’t change, they become my friends,” says Ola Bad, who, with his girlfriend, bakes cookies and shares them with the men, in addition to handing out blankets, booze and cigarettes. He seems utterly in his element as he leans on a parking meter, checking in on Ace and Phil, a remarkably dapper former phlebotomist. Phil’s horrific childhood surrounded by heroin and prostitution, along with a run of bad luck in adulthood, landed him on the streets.

Phil had a “Dreamcatcher” until someone, in a fit of jealousy or destructiveness, tore it down. While a portion of the populace still has a hard time grasping the purpose of street art — and even conventional art in many cases — these men get it intuitively: There is no denying what the art “means.”

“My image of it was his heart floating, trying to help people,” Phil says. “It’s his heart.” He wants another “Dreamcatcher” to replace the one someone destroyed. Because he still has dreams: “I want to sit back and barbecue, me and my girl, cook marshmallows on the fire.”

Phil is now in a residency program and off the streets.