Mural intended to promote Lithonia hit with nuisance warning from city

The mural outside of the Lithonia Art Center. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
The mural outside of the Lithonia Art Center. (Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

Credit: Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Christina Matacotta for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

With colorful shapes and artistic lettering, the new mural outside the Lithonia Art Center was designed to be a welcoming symbol of unity and charm.

The city says it shouldn’t be there.

About a month after dozens of volunteers painted part of the mural, Lithonia issued a nuisance warning against the arts center, which is a private business operated separately from the city.

City officials claim the building’s owner, Steve Paul, did not get the proper permit under Lithonia’s sign ordinance. Though the city directed Paul to correct the issue by this Wednesday, he has vowed to fight the warning — arguing artwork should not qualify as a “sign.”

Paul started the Lithonia Art Center last fall in a building just across the train tracks and less than a quarter of a mile from City Hall. With a large white wall facing the street, Paul thought a mural would be a good way to beautify the small DeKalb County city. The wall facing Rock Chapel Road is 56 feet wide and 15 to 20 feet tall— larger than your average semitractor-trailer.

The design for the full mural.
The design for the full mural.

Credit: Lithonia Art Center

Credit: Lithonia Art Center

“To be able to provide something like that for the community … that’s been just my whole mission,” said Paul, who moved to Lithonia from the northern suburbs about six years ago. “When there’s too many regulations, it drives artists away, it drives business owners away.”

The Lithonia and Stone Mountain chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority funded the creation of the mural with a $3,500 donation, according to Saritha Wood-Harden, who chairs the arts committee for the local chapter. Wood-Harden said the artwork provides “positive reinforcement to the community. We have no other mission and goal here.”

She estimated more than 200 volunteers came out on on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to help paint a little over half of the mural. Eventually, designs of the mural show, the wall would say “Lithonia” in black, cursive lettering and depict silhouettes of a man and woman in front of several colorful shapes.

Then came the Feb. 15 warning from the city. Paul said he still hopes to complete the mural, but has not been able to because of rain and the conflict with the city.

LaThaydra Sands, Lithonia’s city administrator, said the mural violates the city’s sign ordinance.

“The owner has not applied for a sign permit for the location,” Sands said in an email Tuesday. The sign ordinance, according to Sands, defines “wall signs” as signs that are “attached parallel to or painted on an exterior building wall.”

Sands did not say what the possible penalties are, or how Paul could appeal the code violation.

A petition Paul started urges the city to allow the mural, adding that Lithonia has been run down "for many years now and it's time to build it back up and we can start with the beautification of our walls." He also posted a picture of the warning notice on the arts center's Facebook page.

Wood-Harden said she planned to talk with the president and vice president of the local AKA chapter on Tuesday to “look at what our options are.”

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