Living Walls brings back murals that speak volumes

Non-profit kicks off its latest conference this week, after last year’s tumultuous series

Just 72 hours into the latest Living Walls Conference, a 14-day blitz of monumental public murals being painted by local and international artists, conference co-founder Monica Campana was already bone tired.

“What day is today?” she asked her public relations manager Alexandra Parrish.

“It’s Friday,” Parrish replied.

Campana, having spent the bulk of the day outside in the unrelenting heat, slumped over a table in an open-windowed, overheated coffee shop at The Goat Farm Arts Center on the west side.

“Uh, seven more days to go,” Campana moaned.

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Though there are at least 60 unpaid volunteers who assist with the conference, it’s usually Campana who winds up ferrying paint from one location to another, checking on the artists’ progress and even cooking them breakfast each morning.

“Every year I ask myself why I do this,” she said, lifting her head from the table. “But then it’s all done and I love it.”

Now in its fourth year, the conference has become one of the premier street art events, bringing in top graffiti and underground muralists in the world to paint outdoor murals 20 feet high or larger on buildings in the core of Atlanta. This year, 10 local and 10 international artists will paint 20 murals, most in East Atlanta, Reynoldstown, the Old Fourth Ward and Summerhill. While they have been working since last week, on Wednesday Living Walls will officially kick off the conference at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center with screening of street art and graffiti short films. Then on Thursday, there will be an afternoon tour of murals along Edgewood Avenue and a block party on the avenue from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The nonprofit has been lauded for it’s work to bring sophisticated, complicated public art to a city with an uneven history of public art support.

Last year Living Walls was at the center of a controversy surrounding the role of public art. A 130-foot-by 17-foot high mural by the French artist Pierre Roti called, “An Allegory of the Human City,” was painted over after a small but vocal group of longtime residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood complained about its content. It depicted a serpentine mermaid, Gothic influences and other symbols that some construed as “satanic.” Ultimately the wall was painted over because of permitting issues and because the wall was actually under the purview of the state Department of Transportation.

The ensuing debate highlighted not only conflicts between Living Walls and neighborhood leaders, but also difficulties in Atlanta’s permitting process for public art. In the end the city promised to streamline its process, and Living Walls vowed to solicit more public input before applying murals.

“This year it’s all about transparency,” said Parrish.

Campana, with the help of Atlanta City Council members Kwanza Hall and Carla Smith, went through the city’s labyrinthine permitting process, met with neighborhood associations where murals would be painted and went door-to-door along blocks of Old Fourth Ward to enlist support.

“I don’t think I could handle again people putting my name out there and associating me with destroying or dividing communities, like some people did last year,” Campana said. “I’m just hoping that people will see that we really tried this time to get it right.”

The controversy did not discourage artists from applying to participate in this year’s conference. And while she said she would never reject a proposal that might push the envelope, Campana said she did tell some artists about the incident with the Roti mural.

“There’s a big sense of paranoia for all of us and there’s definitely an extra question now when I see a design,” Campana said. “I wouldn’t make anybody change anything and I wouldn’t want them to, but I’m aware now.”

If there’s one artist who is aware, it is Roti, who returned this year to paint another mural on a wall of the building housing The Sound Table bar at Edgewood and Boulevard avenues. Street art is meant to be ephemeral, and often one artist paints over another’s. In Roti’s case, The Sound Table wall already has a mural on it and an advertisement promoting the work of Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey. Instead of painting over what’s there, Roti is incorporating the images into his work, yet another meditation on the life of a city. He said he harbors no ill will toward the people of the Pittsburgh neighborhood and even praised the neighbors who took the time to talk with him last year and those who invited him into their homes.

“When you spend two weeks painting, you go really deep into the local community, but five people who were local aristocrats were able to get their way,” Roti said. “But the piece had an amazing life; really short, but really intense.”

This time he’s hopeful the new work will also inspire debate, though not be painted over in protest.

“The purpose is always to get people to think,” Roti said.

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