Local artists benefit from Atlanta’s development boom

Murals transform blank walls on new construction into works of art
Atlanta artist Craig Alan's mural, "From the Ground Up," rises more than 90 feet over Howell Mill Road in West Midtown. 
Courtesy of 8West



Atlanta artist Craig Alan's mural, "From the Ground Up," rises more than 90 feet over Howell Mill Road in West Midtown. Courtesy of 8West

One muggy afternoon in West Midtown, where half a dozen large-scale developments continue to sprout despite a pandemic-hobbled economy, a bicyclist on Howell Mill Road slowed down to behold an unmissable recent addition of public art: A six-story mural titled “From the Ground Up,” where people rendered in three-foot versions of themselves rise up together, toward the top of a new office building, coalescing into that most enduring and ubiquitous symbol of Atlanta’s perseverance, the phoenix.

The artist, Atlanta native Craig Alan, recognized from an early age that his city can be fertile ground for entrepreneurship, and his digitally composed artwork standing more than 90 feet tall reflects it — in two ways. Figures comprising the mythological bird include Ted Turner, Killer Mike, Margaret Mitchell, mayors Maynard Jackson and Keisha Lance Bottoms and essential workers from the COVID-19 era — people who’ve risen to great heights here and helped raise up the city. Together, their images transform what would otherwise be a banal, blank vertical slab at a new live-work-play hub called 8West. And the fact that Alan was paid handsomely for the high-profile commission marks a different sort of ascent for the city’s creative class.

Like other murals and commissioned sculptural pieces across Atlanta, Alan’s work exemplifies a growing symbiosis between what might seem unlikely bedfellows: big-budget developers and local, sometimes upstart artists, some of them former graffiti writers who once plied their illicit trade in the city’s shadows. More than a dozen artists (and their paint-flecked assistants) have profited thus far, and as long as construction cranes keep filling Atlanta’s skyline, the trend shows no signs of drying up.

“It’s one thing to do the side of a grocery store — it’s another to do the six, eight, 20-story side of a building,” says Alan, a longtime studio artist. “You’re talking next-generational type work here that will last 15 or even 30 years, if the painting’s good enough.”

The benefits go both ways. Jim Meyer is an Atlantic Capital Properties managing partner who teamed with Gateway Ventures to develop 8West and curate its art. He says Alan’s work has already set the project apart, attracting Instagram-worthy buzz as construction concludes and leasing efforts ramp up. “People love the way it looks on the building, the unifying message, the art, the playfulness of the individuals within it,” says Meyer. “We think it’s just the perfect piece at the right time.”

Bolstered by nonprofit programs such as Living Walls and Forward Warrior, Atlanta’s street mural craze is a decade old. Collaborations with the commercial real estate world (see: the vibrant, playful imaginings of artist Yoyo Ferro on buildings from Summerhill to Brookhaven) or agencies such as MARTA (the works of Fahamu Pecou and Shanequa Gay enliven several stations) are nothing new. Numerous multistory murals climb the sides of parking garages around town, joining the likes of iconic murals on old buildings, such as the John Lewis “Hero” depiction by the Loss Prevention arts collective.

But the past few years have given rise to truly colossal artworks on new buildings that capitalize on the city’s insatiable post-recession development boom. For local artists who can handle the time commitment and scale — and who don’t mind hovering several stories over streets on swing stages or lifts — a single commission can cover the rent or mortgage for many months.

The artists and developers we talked to would not reveal how much commissions pay, but as one example, Molly Rose Freeman, an artist with murals in many Atlanta neighborhoods, states on her website she charges $15 to $35 per square foot, depending on the mural’s size, with a minimum of $5,000, not including supplies, travel and equipment such as scaffolding.

Unlike some cities, Atlanta doesn’t have an ordinance requiring property developers incorporate art into their projects. “So the fact they’re doing it voluntarily is very important, because art does add an amenity to their property, and it also provides income and exposure for local artists,” says Camille Russell Love, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs executive director. “It’s absolutely a wonderful thing that’s happening all over Atlanta.”

"Connect," a 10-story mural by artist Alex Webber, also known as HENSE, brightens up the side of the Icon Midtown apartment building. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Love, a Midtown resident, is particularly fond of the city’s most complex and monumental mural to date: “Connect,” a 10-story abstract by the artist HENSE, featuring huge, backlit aluminum circles that glow at night, lending color and 3-D depth to the corner of West Peachtree and 14th streets. It took HENSE — aka Alex Brewer, a former Atlanta graffitist who’s climbed to international acclaim — two months to paint what’s roughly the size of an NBA basketball court on a 39-story apartment tower, Icon Midtown, finished in 2018. Developers with Florida-based Related Group heralded the piece as an instant landmark in a neighborhood famed for its appreciation of the arts. Love agrees: “I love it,” she says. “It’s very now.”

A few blocks south of the HENSE piece stands Modera Midtown, an upscale apartment tower with two pools, a rooftop dog park and a six-story Greg Mike mural, in which a giant bird meets the artist’s signature, square-faced Larry Loudmouf character. Mike’s agency, ABV, helps foster relationships between artists and development teams, and business is so “tremendous,” he says architects are now designing buildings with windowless walls to accommodate public art.

“It’s nice to see developers penciling in real budgets to support Atlanta talent,” says Mike, who also got his start in street graffiti.

Determined to ensure Atlanta’s mega-mural game isn’t exclusively a boys club, muralist and graphic designer Lauren Stumberg was walking her infant son along Old Fourth Ward’s Edgewood Avenue a couple of years ago when she had an idea.

Stumberg had moved to Atlanta in 2012, “enchanted” by the thriving public arts scene. She knew large companies such as NCR and Microsoft were using consultants to flip through portfolios and pick artists they liked for office commissions, and she wanted a piece of that. On Edgewood Avenue, Stumberg watched a raw parking garage take shape as part of the Beltline-straddling Edge development. She saw a palette, an opportunity, so she cold-called the developer, North American Properties, with a grandiose pitch.

"Persephone Rising" looks over the swimming pool at Edge, a mixed-use development on the Beltline's Eastside Trail. It was created by Lauren Stumberg, Molly Rose Freeman, Lela Brunet Raymond and Laura Vela.
Courtesy of North American Properties

Credit: Justin Chan

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Credit: Justin Chan

After a few meetings, Stumberg and the all-female, local artist squad she assembled, including Freeman, Lela Brunet Raymond and Laura Vela, were on swing stages tackling a nine-story depiction of the Greek Goddess of spring called “Persephone Rising.” The partnership worked, and the developer invited the same crew to apply another towering goddess mural, “Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn,” to a wall at their ongoing remake of Midtown’s Colony Square.

“The walls, the ground, the big dead empty areas — those are all potential canvases for artists to make beautiful,” notes Mark Toro, board chairman of North American Properties. “What a disservice to the community, to the street, to let that space go to waste.”

Large-scale street art is trending in cities everywhere, but in Stumberg’s view, Atlanta’s fervor is exceptional. “When I go back home to Boston,” she says, “I’m like, ‘If we were in Atlanta right now, that wall would have a mural on it, and that one would, too.’” Moving forward, she says it’s crucial to highlight artists that reflect the city’s diversity. One example is Yehimi Cambrón, a DACA recipient whose realistic, oversized portraits often nod to the immigrant experience, and whose recent paintings cover a huge wall next to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the side of a seven-story, extended-stay hotel in Hapeville.

“We have so much talent in this city, and (the marriage of development and art) is a great way for one booming business to help the struggling masses of the creative class,” says Stumberg. “Not to say all artists are struggling, but it takes a big client like a developer, corporation or someone with the funds to invest in you, as opposed to clients limited by grant funding or what they could cobble together from the community.”

Back on Howell Mill Road, Alan says the phoenix mural, his first outdoor piece, is already paying dividends in unexpected ways. He’s fielding requests for prints of the work and is planning to paint a scaled-down version meant for a collector’s wall. Clearly the mural, having risen at a time like this, has struck a chord.

“It’s just to remind ourselves that we’re part of a bigger picture,” says Alan. “And when you allow artists to really bring their vision to a surface, to bring their colors in and dress it up, I think it adds personality to a city.”

Public art works funded by developers

‘From the Ground Up.’ by Craig Alan. 8West, corner of Howell Mill Road and 8th Street, Atlanta.

‘Connect.’ By HENSE, aka Alex Brewer. Icon Midtown, corner of West Peachtree and 14th streets, Atlanta.

Greg Mike mural. Modera Midtown, 95 8th St NW, Atlanta.

‘Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn.’ By Lauren Stumberg. Colony Square, 1197 Peachtree St., Atlanta.