Gee Smalls is co-owner and chef of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: Mia Yakel
Photo: Mia Yakel

At these metro Atlanta restaurants, the walls talk

Atlanta restaurateurs use mural art to tell ‘the best of who we are’

Junior’s Pizza. Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria. Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar. Lagarde. All four of these restaurants are new to Atlanta in 2019, but they share another common thread: murals on the walls.

Pizza-themed murals lend a playful atmosphere to Junior’s Pizza on Georgia Avenue. Husband-and-wife owners Alex and Jennifer Aton opted to decorate the space with mural art, because “it brings more personality to the space than just subway tile,” Jennifer Aton said.

But, the murals at Junior’s Pizza are more than wall coverings. The designs — and even the local artists selected to paint them — were highly personal, each with a story.

Junior’s Pizza boasts a pizza monster mural. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A colorful pizza monster mural was inspired by Ed Roth, who developed the iconography for the hot rod culture of the 1950s and ’60s. That piece was painted by local tattoo artist Stenvik Mostrom, whom the Atons have entrusted numerous times to ink their own bodies.

Veteran tattoo artist Phil Colvin, owner of Memorial Tattoo, also is involved in the wall décor at the pizzeria — a mural of the Junior’s Pizza logo. “It is a tattoo that Alex got done by Phil about 12 years ago,” Jennifer Aton said. “I got it tattooed about a year ago. We always knew it would be the logo for whatever pizza restaurant we opened.”

Also on display is a rainbow unicorn eating a pizza. That whimsical mural, painted by Josh Milstead, was requested by Alex Aton’s 5-year-old daughter.

A fun mural, with a dash of familial history and culture, similarly will add life to Lagarde, when it opens in the Parkview on Peachtree development in Chamblee. Leonardo Moura and chef Jamie Adams, owners of the Sandy Springs Italian eatery il Giallo Osteria & Bar, hope to tell a story of their background, and that of New Orleans, through the large mural. Lagarde is Adams’ middle name, and dishes will be based on recipes from Adams’ childhood and family trips to NOLA, where his parents were raised.

Adams said he envisions a graffiti-esque street scene of the Crescent City that also will include caricatures of Moura and himself, as well as names of people from their past that offer “clues to our beginnings.” The goal, he said, is “to cast a whimsical atmosphere.” He wants Lagarde to be “a place for fun, lightheartedness and a convivial time. It’s not serious dining.”

To carry out this theme, Moura and Adams tapped the Lotus Eaters Club, a collective of 10 Atlanta illustrators who work as graphic designers, primarily for an animation studio. Tackling the Lagarde art will be artists Chris Alvarez, his fiancée, Courtney Hicks, and lead designer Killamari.

“They wanted something New Orleans-related, but not the typical fleur de lis,” Alvarez said.

At Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria in West Midtown, the murals are as woke as the music blaring from the speakers. “The design of our space is a response to growing up as African Americans,” explained co-owner Clint Gray, who founded the fast-growing pizza concept in Nashville with childhood pals Derrick Moore and E.J. Reed in 2017.

During their youth, the trio was influenced heavily by hip-hop and R&B. In bringing Slim & Husky’s to Atlanta, it made sense to use the walls as a way to pay homage to this city’s music scene.

The interior of Slim and Husky’s Pizza Beeria on Howell Mill Road features murals and artwork of some notable Atlanta personalities, ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We just wanted to show Atlanta that we are three young men from Nashville, but you guys are responsible for raising us through music. We appreciate these talents and skills that came out of Atlanta. It’s been a huge part of our lives,” Gray said. “Growing up in the South, Atlanta was like our New York.”

In the restaurant, you’ll see caricatures of the three owners as grown men, but with the bodies of little kids, each one wearing the jersey of an Atlanta pro sports great: Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins and Hank Aaron.

There’s also a social message. “The art gallery feel is an opportunity to expose the best of black culture to the masses,” Gray said. “In the hospitality field and beyond, including the media, there is not as much positive representation of black excellence as our culture deserves. We highlight some of the best of who we are, hoping that motivates our culture and everyone to be the best you can be,” he said.

The lyrics from OutKast’s “Git Up, Git Out” take up an entire wall. One piece references Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” Even the bathrooms are filled with positive imagery, where R&B female greats are depicted as action figures “to make it look like they are saving the world,” Gray said. In the men’s room, rappers Pastor Troy, Killer Mike, Jeezy, Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, T.I. and Gucci Mane, along with hip-hop duo OutKast, are cast as kung fu characters, as a tribute to OutKast’s “Stankonia” album.

“What better place than a bathroom to put OutKast?” Gray laughed.

One of the murals at Slim and Husky’s Pizza Beeria. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And, what better place than the entrance to put a mural depicting a restaurant’s namesake? Over at Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar on Main Street in downtown College Park, Virgil F. Smalls watches over the restaurant that his son, Gee Smalls, opened this summer with his husband Juan Smalls.

Gee Smalls grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, with Gullah family roots in nearby James Island. The recipes for most of the dishes at Virgil’s were passed down from his Gullah relatives.

“When it was time for us to open our bar and restaurant, it was only natural for us to name it after Virgil, as well as to celebrate the oldest black culture in America,” Gee Smalls told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this summer.

For the project, Smalls commissioned local artist C. Flux Sing, having been attracted to his mural inspired by pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice, created on the eve of the Super Bowl held this year in Atlanta.

Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar’s co-owner, Gee Smalls, and artist C. Flux Sing stand in front of the mural that Sing painted of Smalls’ father, Virgil F. Smalls, the restaurant’s namesake. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The artwork is replete with symbolism. A palmetto tree and a crescent moon represent Charleston, the port city through which 40% of enslaved Africans were brought into this country.

Colors also hold meaning. Virgil Small’s face is painted “true blue,” in Sing’s words. Swaths of copper orange are “regal.” Gray tones are a reminder to conserve the Gullah culture. Lime green represents the new. White stands for truth.

“It was important for me to be deliberate in the story we were telling visually,” Gee Smalls said.

As the project unfolded, so did a new story: Smalls and Sing discovered that they are distant Gullah relatives.

“It was just kind of meant to be,” Sing said. “Divine order.”

Read the AJC Spring Dining Guide: The Atlanta barbecue issue

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