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Living Walls: Grey as the New Voice of Dissent in the City of Atlanta

There is a long and in many cases undocumented history of unsanctioned public action from fringe communities throughout the world. In the late 1960s and early 70s a band of voices erupted that drew noteworthy attention to the streets of New York and helped shape popular awareness of graffiti and street art. This counterculture, formed by predominantly African American and Latino teenagers from the Bronx and Brooklyn, vied for attention through highly charged textual stylizations and images. Labeled as “writers,” the fragmented youth fought for presence by tagging the streets and subways of New York with a richly coded language not yet deemed “art” by a larger public. By acting on the fringes of visibility and playing with modes of signification, “Wild Style” graffiti challenged dominant regimes of image production and distribution; the aliases and combative signatures rivaled content on public billboards and advertisements and cast an aggressive aura over the city that represented a silenced and oppressed community. By 1989 the Metropolitan Transportation Authority responded by implementing anti-graffiti campaigns that ensured the swift erasure of graffiti and the criminalization of unsanctioned visual expression. Through periods of action and negation, a conversation between cultures played out on the walls of the city as minority groups strived for recognition through a dense array of codes and graphics.

In the 1980s New York galleries began to take an interest in graffiti as a noteworthy phenomenon with artistic merit. Writers began to assert their street practices as marketable by collaborating with hip-hop artists, apparel designers and the downtown art world. Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and several other artists represented an emerging post-graffiti aesthetic in which graffiti styles were appropriated onto canvas and assimilated into both high and popular culture. Dissidents continued to intervene in the streets alongside these new hybrid practices while graffiti emerged as a global movement. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, artists like Shepard Fairey saw the appeal of appropriating and branding a counterculture aesthetic rooted in the earlier generation of writers. T-shirts with overtly anti-authoritarian content–for example,“Obey“–were being sold to a new urban youth culture, while political campaigners and advertisers began employing street artists to create supportive imagery to help brand and market their platforms–the Obama “Hope” poster serving as the paradigm.

Given this complex and multi-layered history, we are led to believe that graffiti and street art culture are inextricably linked to criminality, defacement, heavy tensions between the marginal and the mainstream, and the fetishization of rogue action in popular culture. Contemporary street artists are both contributing to and complicating this history as they collaborate more and more with local communities and city officials to create provocative public works that visually enhance cities and promote urban growth and change. Living Walls, an Atlanta based organization serves as an example of this new public art movement that embraces street art as a viable medium to educate, enliven, and promote art and culture in primarily economically challenged communities. As I encountered a series of recent controversies in the city of Atlanta, I felt the need to question this new hybrid aesthetic and the role of street art today in relationship to its history.

In 2012, a series of retaliatory gestures were enacted on several Living Walls, sparking debate. According to a recent article about the newest defacement, several angered community members from Southwest Atlanta turned “vigilante” and took grey roller paint to Pierre Roti’s incredibly intricate mural, An Allegory of the Human City. A hybrid human-animal form entangled in an array of urban structures, aquatic and serpentine creatures spoke to the brutality of capitalism. However several Pittsburgh residents, including a former state legislator, interpreted the work differently, deeming it demonic and offensive. Displeased citizens claimed they were not contacted by Living Walls prior to the work’s installment and felt they should have been involved in the decision making process.

Prior to the Pittsburgh controversy, numerous community members near Chosewood Park felt that a mural done by street artist, Hyuro, was arguably pornographic. A sequence of stylized images depicting a woman both putting on and disrobing a dress-turned wolf once again conflated the human with the animal. The controversial rendering sparked anger and debate due to the piece’s proximity to a church, mosque, and penitentiary; text sprayed over the work proclaiming “Take this shit to Buchhad” referred to Buckhead, a predominantly white, upscale community in North Atlanta. The Georgia Department of Transportation intervened and painted over both Roti’s, and Hyuro’s walls to appease public contentions.

While Atlanta developers and city officials commission acts of controlled transgression onto walls in newly built parks and impoverished neighborhoods, police are increasingly criminalizing unauthorized graffiti–a schism of expression is unfolding throughout the city. I cannot discredit the integrity of such public action, and I will not merely laud vandals for their “authenticity” and “stick it to the man” mentality. Many of the recent murals are in fact powerful, beautifully rendered, and provocative and some street tagging today is merely visual noise. But when the premise of Living Walls is founded on community outreach and improvement, when people from largely poor, “less scenic” African American neighborhoods are charged as vandals, vigilantes, and childish while street artists walk away feeling largely entitled and misunderstood, deep questions about should be raised about the meaning of improvement….

Through the lens of Living Wall’s mission, it is important to question whether commissioned artists can or should have freedom of expression. I want to argue that an organization like Living Walls cannot situate its work in a pure or transcendent space unhinged from public opinion and interpretation when the term “street art”  today is entangled in the politics of visibility, advanced capitalism, and governmental regulations. We cannot deny the fact that street art has situated itself in a largely collaborative and negotiable space. Does that make it bad? When instrumentalized to promote what Richard Florida has termed a “Creative Class,” by which an aesthetics of neo-liberalism is gifted to low-income housing districts to heighten the tourist trade and displace residents, possibly so… However, to think of this as good or bad is an over simplification. Murals and public works have the capacity to speak, but they do not speak for themselves, and they should not speak definitively for communities. Whether labeled as art, or as something completely different, these works should speak with and through a wide variety of voices and I hope that we look to these incidents, in which gray roller paint has now been awarded the criminal status that spray paint once possessed, to create spaces of understanding and growth through an embrace of difference.

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