Graffiti documentary explores Atlanta’s public arts origins

Producers behind the film, “City of Kings,” discuss the importance of documenting creative contributions from Black and brown artists.
A wall showcases pieces done by Atlanta graffiti artists SAVE and Sparky Z for the 2023 ATL Jam.

Credit: Will Feagins

Credit: Will Feagins

A wall showcases pieces done by Atlanta graffiti artists SAVE and Sparky Z for the 2023 ATL Jam.

Antar Fierce loves a good origin story.

In a new documentary short premiering this month, the historian, archivist and educator traces Atlanta’s public arts beginnings to early works done by graffiti artists, commonly referred to as style writers. The film, “City of Kings,” chronicles the growth of Atlanta’s graffiti community in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and today.

“Writing is really the first iteration of public art in Atlanta,” Fierce said. “It was hated. Nobody liked it, but it’s still an important part of the story.”

Working with independent documentary filmmaker Will Feagins, Fierce conducts on-camera interviews with style writing legends Sparky Z, Save and Hense. The film also features Vayne, an artist with global recognition and a preeminent figure in today’s generation of style writers in Atlanta. The four men discuss what drew them to graffiti and how attitudes toward the art form have shifted over time.

Fierce started taking photos of graffiti as a teen growing up in Brooklyn, New York, during the early 1980s. When he got to Atlanta in 1989, he’d already amassed a visual collection of his hometown’s style writing history. Fierce was attending Clark Atlanta University, but had traveled to the city before to visit family.

In Atlanta, Fierce started taking pictures of the art he was seeing while riding on MARTA. He was impressed with the work, especially how a lot of pieces focused on characters, faces and heads rather than just words. Fierce found himself drawn to older pieces done by artists such as Sparky Z and Leon, and became obsessed with building up an archive. “I did try to make my best effort to go and document as much of that old stuff as I could, because I knew at some point it was going to be important,” he said.

Three years ago, Fierce and graffiti artist Dr. Dax discussed the idea of doing a project to celebrate the city’s style writing history. The plan would involve three potential projects: an art exhibition, film and book. The exhibition took place in October 2022. For the film, the discussion revolved around the word “Kings” being used by graffiti crews — many of them Black — including the United Kings and the Five Kings. That nod to royalty was more of an aspiration for something better than a boast signed in spray paint. “These guys wanted to be more than what their current situation was,” Fierce said.

Telling that story visually is important, Fierce says. The film came via South Fulton Arts’ sixth annual Filmer series.

The program pairs a local filmmaker, in this case Feagins, with an artist or organization making an impact in the South Fulton community. Feagins, who came to Atlanta from his native Pittsburgh in 2009, primarily focuses on the intersections of Black life, creativity and human experiences in his work. His introduction to graffiti culture was through hip-hop — he did some graffiti under the tag Rampage, which also doubled as his DJ name.

Graffiti historian Antar Fierce interviews artist Sparky Z for the film "City of Kings."

Credit: Will Feagins

icon to expand image

Credit: Will Feagins

“Because Atlanta is changing so quickly, to have some tangible evidence of this period of time and the people who were a part of it is very important,” said Feagins.

To tell that story, Feagins leaned heavily on Fierce for connections to artists and subject matter experts who contributed to the film. Production took place between March and November 2023. Feagins said he wanted viewers to see the person behind the paint, from Sparky Z sharing his origin story to Save talking about his collaborators to Vayne advocating for style writers getting the same opportunities as commissioned muralists. It’s also why he opted to film the majority of subjects in their homes.

“These are people like everyone else. They just have this passion that happens to be viewed as illegal,” he said. “I want people to have some level of increased understanding and empathy.”

A piece titled, "City of Kings," is located behind a building in southwest Atlanta.

Credit: Will Feagins

icon to expand image

Credit: Will Feagins

Offering a better understanding of the who and why behind graffiti is key for artists featured in the film as well. “I really do think it’s important that the younger generation doesn’t get too lost in the misinformation, doesn’t get too lost in the hype and the internet videos,” Vayne said.

The artist, whose face is covered and whose voice is distorted in the film to hide his true identity, shares his story of being inspired by pieces from older generations. Vayne is known for large-scale pieces that show up behind billboards, on the sides of buildings and other acrophobia-inducing locations. He sees his work as another entry in a direct line of art that stems from local Black artists like Save and the United Kings.

Fierce and Feagins are discussing making a full-length version of “City of Kings.” They’re submitting the film to festivals and will make it available for streaming afterward. Feagins is also interested in telling more stories about Atlanta’s graffiti history, including the famous So So Def wall and Atlanta writers using freight trains as a canvas.

Both men say there is no shortage of oft-overlooked contributions from creative minorities and street artists in Atlanta. That history just needs to be told.

“The first writers in Atlanta were Black kids and they weren’t necessarily poor or came from a marginalized community, but these were the kids that did it first,” said Fierce. “If we don’t tell that story 100 years from now, that story’s not going to be on the record, and people can make up whatever they want.”


2024 Filmer Premiere

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22. Free ($35 for VIP tickets). Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29. Free ($35 for VIP tickets). Academy Theatre, 599 U.S. Highway 19, Hapeville.