A new art project charts HIV growth in metro Atlanta

A new piece of public art in downtown Atlanta is a sign with simple text standing over 7 feet.

Its pyramid shape allows cars and pedestrians from every direction to see the same staggering statistic:

ATL’S HIV+ 30,162 population

The sculpture features marquee-style digits that will be updated weekly to reflect the ever-growing number of HIV-positive people living in metro Atlanta. It is estimated that more 30,000 people in metro Atlanta live with an HIV diagnosis, and four more people are diagnosed every day, according to AIDSVu, a project featuring data obtained from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and compiled by researchers at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

The project, designed to bring awareness to the HIV epidemic, is displayed on a hillside at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, viewable from Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard and Centennial Olympic Park Drive.

“I wanted to reach everyday Atlantans. I want everyone to realize it’s getting worse, it’s not going away,” said Matthew Terrell, a 31-year-old artist, writer and HIV activist, who developed the idea for the project and oversaw the design and installation. “When I looked at the statistics, I asked myself: How can I communicate this? The magnitude of it. I didn’t take an emotional approach. It’s just facts and numbers, black and white.” In 2013, the number of people living with diagnosed HIV in metro Atlanta was 25,620, according to AIDSVu. And the estimated number of new diagnoses each year since then is 1,470.

Terrell of Atlanta started thinking about the project more than a year ago while studying statistics on AIDSVu, also known as the AIDSVu map, which provides detailed statistics on HIV infection rates, even broken down by ZIP code and color-coded to illustrate the scope of the disease. The site also links state and county-level HIV prevalence data with local HIV testing sites, information about state AIDS drug assistance programs and estimates of the percentage of HIV diagnoses that are made late in the course of the disease. (Side note on Terrell. He says his proudest moment was, while researching an article on Keith Haring's work in Atlanta, finding a missing fragment of the original mural by Haring, an iconic pop artist of the 1980s. Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990. Terrell helped return the piece to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.Go to www.myajc.com to read the complete story.)

The project, called "Atlanta's HIV+ Population Now," takes inspiration from the iconic "Atlanta's Population Now" sign located on Peachtree Street, which has charted Atlanta's growth since 1965. While two sides of the project present the statistic of the HIV-positive population, the third side facing the National Center for Civil and Human Rights says the following: HIV still stands in the South as an epidemic, and an impediment to equality and human rights for the most vulnerable, and the most marginalized members of society. Stopping the virus means we must help everyone, regardless of race, class, gender or identity.

Terrell said the public art is aimed to spark dialogue — and spur people into action.

Terrell said he hopes the art project is an impetus for more conversations about safe sex, and also brings attention to the importance of HIV testing to help prevent the spread of the disease. If you are HIV-positive, knowing your status allows you to get immediate treatment before experiencing symptoms of infection and makes it less likely to develop serious illnesses, including the ones associated with AIDS. Knowing your HIV status also lessens the chance of passing the virus to others.

“The object itself is not the art,” Terrell said. “It’s the conversation.”

Terrell, who is gay, said he is “HIV-negative as of the last time I was tested” five months ago. The art piece will be presented now through June 27, which is National HIV Testing Day. Terrell plans to update the numbers in the marquee display every Friday. These weekly updates will take place at noon, and the number will tick upward by 28 each week. The artist will be on hand to discuss HIV with visitors, and to talk about the meaning of the project during these visits.

The three-sided art project is made out of Lexan, a light and strong polycarbonate plastic material, with a wooden frame. Terrell received a grant from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a global nonprofit organization providing cutting-edge medicine and advocacy.

“A lot of people have forgotten about HIV,” Terrell said, standing in front of the art project on a recent afternoon. “HIV has snuck into our most vulnerable communities — people of color, homeless people, transgender. And this disease further marginalizes and disenfranchises them.”

W. Imara Canady, regional director of communications and community engagement at a local office of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (which is based in Los Angeles), said he believes the art project can play an important role in bringing awareness and change.

“There is a simplicity to it, but there’s something about it that says this is what it is,” Canady said on a recent sunny morning during the unveiling of the project. “But it’s the dialogue and engaging discussion that can change the numbers. Artists have always been at the forefront of social change. This gives an easy visual to create a moment of pause, of awareness and hopefully a dialogue in homes, churches, neighborhoods.”

Canady said the keys to turning the tide of the HIV infection rates include people knowing their status, access to health care, and “working in every area of our lives to reduce stigma and judgment when it comes to HIV.”


Approximately 13 percent of people who have HIV don't know they have the disease because they have never been tested and diagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • African-Americans shoulder the greatest burden of HIV compared to other races and ethnicities; although they are 12 percent of the population of the United States, they account for 45 percent of new HIV diagnoses, according to the CDC.

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