Artists, landowners sue Atlanta over crackdown on murals

Plaintiffs say they’re facing a June 9 deadline from city
Fabian Williams, also known as "Occasional Superstar," created this mural of author James Baldwin in East Atlanta

Fabian Williams, also known as "Occasional Superstar," created this mural of author James Baldwin in East Atlanta

A group of artists and property owners on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Atlanta to halt the city’s regulation of murals on private property.

The lawsuit says landowners have been told they must now go through a multi-step application process for art that already exists or face possible prosecution — plus destruction of the art on their own property.

» Photos: Murals listed in the lawsuit

For future works, artists must go through an even more arduous application process: approval from five separate city offices, including the mayor and the City Council, the suit says. The public art ordinance also provides no time limits for the approval process, the suit said.

“Atlanta simply cannot constitutionally set undefined hoops and hurdles for display of art on a citizen’s own private property,” said Gerry Weber, a lawyer for the artists and property owners. “Because of this, a lot of great pieces of art around the city are at risk of being painted over.”

“The city has not yet been served with the suit,” said a statement Tuesday afternoon by the city’s office of communications. “Accordingly, we are unable to comment at this time.”

Among the plaintiffs are Fabian Williams, a street artist who makes murals under the name "Occasional Superstar"; Peter Ferrari, "PLF"; Benito Ferro, "Yoyo Ferro"; and Atlanta bar owner Grant Henry.

“Over the past 10 years this city has become an oasis for every type of artist,” Ferrari said. “I hope the city will continue to acknowledge the value we bring to Atlanta and continue to allow us to grow as a community.”

The city recently notified a number of artists and property owners that they had until June 9 to comply with the ordinance’s requirements or have their murals removed and be cited for violations, Weber said. The lawsuit seeks an expedited court order that prevents enforcement of the ordinance and damages for the artists and property owners involved.

The ordinance, which has been on the city's books since 1982, has a criminal provision with up to $1,000 in fines and six months of confinement. The ordinance also has an "amnesty provision" regarding existing artwork. It requires:

  • Certification that the artwork will not be a traffic hazard or dangerous distraction to motorists or pedestrians.
  • Certification that the work is not primarily intended to convey a commercial message.
  • Certification from the bureau of cultural affairs that the work "is not inconsistent" with the city's public art program and does not "negatively affect the public interest related to aesthetics, additional sign clutter and public safety."

But this grandfather provision and the requirements for new artwork are not acceptable, said the lawsuit, which alleges a violation of free speech rights and unconstitutional “takings.”

“The public art ordinance requires government pre-approval before anyone can engage in any artistic expression anywhere in the city that might be visible to the public,” said Zack Greenamyre, another attorney representing the artists. “That’s simply not consistent with our cultural freedoms.”

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