Embattled mural prompts question: How much say should public have in public art?

There is a 130-foot-long by 17-foot-high swatch of gray paint on a concrete retaining wall at the University Avenue exit off the Downtown Connector.

The drab patch is so prosaic that if you didn’t know what was beneath it, there would be no reason to give it a passing glance. Yet the paint, and what it covers, reveals an episode in Atlanta’s history of public art politics.

The chapters in this particular story are many, with themes of ambition, bureaucracy, class and race — themes that have played out in the city for generations. Also present are issues of artistic freedom and aesthetic judgment, elements central to just about any public art debate.

Some who saw the mural that was on the wall before a state Department of Transportation crew smothered it with gray paint two weeks ago, say the whole episode has been a learning experience. Where this all goes from here is uncertain.

Living Walls arrives

Here is what is beneath the gray: “An Allegory of the Human City,” by the French street artist Pierre Roti. It was a surrealist image of a human torso, the lower extremities like that of a serpentine mermaid. Its head was that of an alligator devouring a series of fish that were feeding on each other, largest to smallest. A cityscape, like something from a Tim Burton movie, loomed large in the work.

Roti was one of several artists invited to be part of a Living Walls event last summer. In the simplest terms, Living Walls is a non-profit organization that seeks to “promote, educate and change perspective about our public space through street art,” said its co-founder, 30-year-old Monica Campana. Walls throughout the city are its canvas. Some of the visiting artists paint walls legally in their home cities, some do it illegally.

“This is a way to communicate,” said Campana, a native of Peru. “Whatever goes in public space affects people. And whether you’re doing the work legally or illegally, you’re communicating.”

Living Walls sprouted in Atlanta three years ago. It was created by Campana and artist Blacki Li Migliozzi. They wanted to give street artists like themselves a larger international platform to further what they see as a new movement in muralism for their generation. The idea was to invite graffiti and other street artists from around the world to an annual conference in Atlanta. The first year the budget was a meager $20,000, raised mainly through small fundraisers and tiny grants. Twenty artists showed up for a weekend that summer, slept on air mattresses and painted 12 murals, mostly in Atlanta’s core.

“That made us see that we didn’t need $100,000 to be successful,” said Campana.

Thanks to social media, the quality of the work, and the organization’s ambition, Living Walls has put itself in the vanguard of the street art movement. It garnered a glowing article in the New York Times. It also began attracting financial support from major arts contributors such as the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Atlanta philanthropist Louis Corrigan. Earlier this month Living Walls participated in Art Basel, the glitzy, international contemporary arts event in Miami. The group has been approached by other major cities looking to sponsor a Living Walls event.

“We’ve put Atlanta in the eyes of the world by bringing in these artists,” said Campana.

Momentum is behind the group, or so it would seem.

Community vs. mural

Public space is the traditional gallery for street art, the exterior walls of private buildings and public structures the canvases, sometimes painted with permission though often without. Unlike traditional public art meant to last lifetimes, street art is by nature ephemeral, meant to last as long as the elements, a rival street artist, or, in this case, a neighborhood or ordinance, allow it.

In his description of “An Allegory,” Roti wrote: “ ‘Fish symbolize people in our society — the big fish eat the smaller fish. They serve as the infinite symbol because the structure of society functions as an eternal cycle.’ “

Rendered in latex paint and spray paint, the composition was a swirl of grays, black and steel blue, like the colors of the limousine company building sitting atop the hill where the mural used to be. On a cloudy day, the sky, the building and the mural read like a murky, but compelling, dystopian tableau.

Some would call the Pittsburgh neighborhood, where the mural was located, dystopian.

Once a working class enclave of mostly African Americans, the area now has one of metro Atlanta’s highest foreclosure rates, where seemingly every other house is boarded up. The middle school is under threat of closure. There are no major grocery stores or national retailers. Unemployment is well above the national average. It is designated as a “Weed and Seed” community by a federal law enforcement program meant to reduce violence in high crime areas. Those who could move out of the neighborhood did so long ago. Those who remained stayed either because they couldn’t leave, chose not to out of loyalty to their roots in the area, or moved in because the housing costs are among the cheapest in the city.

Pittsburgh is now 96 percent African American and has a large population of seniors. It is also a community that is heavily Christian, where churches still give structure to it’s fragile body.

To talk to residents and community leaders, it is a body that is trying to resuscitate itself. There is a strong faith community that binds neighbors, with churches serving free breakfast to the poor many mornings.

At the Pittman Community Center, the wall surrounding the community pool bears a mural with the kind of utopian image the neighborhood would like to achieve: a series of rainbow-hued silhouettes are the background for images of revered community leaders, kids playing sports and happy families. It was painted about a decade ago.

That’s the image long-time residents such as former State Rep. Doug Dean and pastor Bobby Williams of Community Ministry Christian Church like to promote. In Roti’s mural a few blocks away from the community center’s, they saw degradation.

Division grows

Living Walls started with four people and a handful of volunteers. They were, and still are, used to creating anonymous work, their identities known primarily by other street artists.

But the organization wanted to promote greater visibility for the art form. That meant Living Walls would have to bow to convention and seek permission before painting their walls and signing the name of the organization.

For decades, the city of Atlanta has had a public art master plan, which, in theory, is supposed to provide a certification process that artists must follow before installing or rendering their work in the public domain. The process has three steps: artists must submit a plan to the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs for review by that office, the transportation office and the Urban Design Commission. The application then goes through the city zoning committee and to the city council for approval. It is also recommended, but not required, that the artist meet with a city-sanctioned Neighborhood Planning Unit, so residents living near the proposed work can get a look at the renderings and weigh in ahead of time.

It’s a process that can take up to three months. Until now, no one was charged with shepherding artists through the certification process, said Camille Russell Love, director of the city office of cultural affairs. In any given year the city gets less than a half-dozen applications for certification, said Eddie Granderson, director of the city’s public art program.

“I’m certain that there are plenty of pieces out there that didn’t go through our certification process,” said Love.

But in practice, if no one complains about the work or brings it to the city’s attention, it usually stays up.

In Living Walls’ first two years, the group did not apply for city permits. The murals often went up in neighborhoods that welcomed them or sought them out, such as Decatur, Edgewood Avenue area, Old Fourth Ward and downtown Atlanta.

For its third year, the group decided to branch out into neighborhoods that are struggling or gentrifying. Members of the Capitol View neighborhood association invited the group to put up a mural. The neighborhood abuts Pittsburgh. Living Walls also chose a wall on Sawtell Avenue in the Chosewood Park neighborhood.

This time, Campana put in applications for each proposed Living Walls mural. But she did so as many of the artists were preparing to come to town. And while applications were reviewed and approved by the office of cultural affairs, they went no further. According to Love, it was the applicant's responsibility to follow through the steps to achieve permits.

Perhaps most crucially, Living Walls never met with the neighborhood planning units of Chosewood Park or Pittsburgh before the murals went up.

That’s when the problems began in earnest. First came complaints around the mural painted by the Argentine muralist Hyuro. Initially Hyuro submitted a rendering of a set of chairs for the wall on Sawtell Avenue across from a church in Chosewood Park, said Campana. Instead she painted a series of a woman in various states of undress until she turns into a wolf. A small but vocal group complained. Even though Living Walls got permission from the owner of the property to paint the mural, the owner didn’t want the controversy. Belatedly, Campana and others met with the neighbors to quell dissent, but it was too late. Campana herself went out and painted over the mural just weeks after it had been completed.

“It was really disheartening,” Campana said.

Then heat surged around the Pittsburgh painting. Several Capitol View residents had advocated for a mural at the University Avenue exit, which is a thoroughfare to their neighborhood, but the avenue runs through Pittsburgh.

Over the 10 days that Roti painted “An Allegory,” 74-year-old James Bridges, a Pittsburgh resident, stood by, encouraging the artist and admiring the work. Bridges grew up in Pittsburgh, studied art at Clark Atlanta University back when it was Clark College and usually has with him a portfolio of his own work or pictures of murals taken during this travels. He’s considered the neighborhood’s artist.

As the image became more defined, Bridges found himself one of the few defenders of the piece among the residents of Pittsburgh.

“Folks in the barber shop would jump on me, saying, ‘You call yourself a Christian? How can you support this foolishness? It’s evil! Those are snakes and he’s got dead people in the windows,’” Bridges said earlier this month. “They’d talk about it with their friends and they said they felt like it was witchcraft driving us away from the community. I’ve explained to people that these are international artists coming here and this is something we should be proud of. Art is a story that expresses an artist’s vision of the world.”

But Roti’s vision wasn’t Pittsburgh’s.

“I’m not going to pass artistic judgment on the piece or get into first amendment rights,” said LaShawn Hoffman, executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association. “But I know the faith community in my neighborhood, and in the Christian faith the serpent is not a positive thing and at first glance, people looked at it as a serpent.”

Things quickly unraveled and community complaints built. In November, Dean, Williams and two others painted over large swaths of the mural.

“Living Walls, they have put some beautiful art in the community, but they just came in ours and did what they wanted to do,” Williams said. “They told us that we ought to be happy. But they don’t realize that by them not asking us what we wanted or what we thought, they disrespected us.”

Some supporters of the mural took to social media, bemoaning its defacement, an action Dean acknowledged was wrong but which he does not regret.

“We aren’t so stupid over here that we don’t appreciate culture and art,” said Dean. “And I can’t say what is an artist’s intent, but I just know what he did, it don’t belong here.”

Which gets to heart of successful public art, said Ayokunle Odeleye, an art professor at Kennesaw State University and noted sculptor whose 32-year career as a public artist is the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through Jan. 12.

The process of creating public art must include input from the community and in some way reflect the community it’s in for it to be successful, Odeleye said.

“The nature of public art is that some people will have exposure to art and art history and understand the work, but there will be others who don’t,” Odeleye said. “That’s why you have got to involve people including the little old lady up the street.”

In the ensuing debate over Roti's image it was determined that the wall did not belong to the limousine service, which initially gave Living Walls permission to paint it. The wall didn't belong to the city either, but to the state Department of Transportation. So the DOT and citizens who supported the mural removed the paint put up by Dean and Williams. During a subsequent press conference to discuss the fate of the wall, the racial divide was apparent: Those in support of the wall were mostly white. Capitol View resident Frederick Noble collected more than 1,800 signatures to keep the mural, but the signatures came from around the world, which meant little to Pittsburgh residents.

“For me, a young white guy going into their neighborhood saying you need this in your neighborhood, I’m not going to get anywhere with that argument,” Noble admitted.

Campana agreed. “This whole thing deals with race, the poor, foreclosures, and these are issues that are larger than what we’re doing with Living Walls,” she said.

Truce called

In the end, process trumped all. Because Living Walls hadn’t followed the city’s certification process, the city requested that DOT permanently cover the wall. On Dec. 11, a DOT crew showed up and lacquered “An Allegory.”

The lessons learned from this are many, starting with the city. Love said that by the first quarter of 2013, one person will be charged with shepherding artists through the public art application process from beginning to end. And meeting with neighborhood groups will be required.

Dean plans to invite the artistic community to Pittsburgh in January to talk about getting a new mural.

“If I offended somebody, I’m sorry, but I don’t regret aggressiveness on the part of this community,” he said. “We need a healing on both sides.”

Campana reiterated her desire to see Living Walls go into under served communities, but now recognizes the importance of meeting with more than one faction of a community. Nevertheless, she doesn’t intend for the artists to surrender their artistic vision to any one group. That is not the ethic of street art, she said.

“We are going to keep painting,” she said.