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Atlanta’s ‘Living Walls’ Public Art Isn’t Always Acclaimed by Public

Removing paint from painted over Living Walls mural on University Ave.

There is a 130-foot-long by 17-foot-high swatch of gray paint on a concrete retaining wall at the University Avenue exit off the Downtown Connector.

The drab patch is so prosaic that if you didn’t know what was beneath it, there would be no reason to give it a passing glance. Yet the paint, and what it covers, reveals an episode in Atlanta’s history of public art politics.

The chapters in this particular story are many, with themes of ambition, bureaucracy, class and race — themes that have played out in the city for generations. Also present are issues of artistic freedom and aesthetic judgment, elements central to just about any public art debate.

Some who saw the mural that was on the wall before a state Department of Transportation crew smothered it with gray paint two weeks ago, say the whole episode has been a learning experience. Where this all goes from here is uncertain.

Living Walls arrives

Here is what is beneath the gray: “An Allegory of the Human City,” by the French street artist Pierre Roti. It was a surrealist image of a human torso, the lower extremities like that of a serpentine mermaid. Its head was that of an alligator devouring a series of fish that were feeding on each other, largest to smallest. A cityscape, like something from a Tim Burton movie, loomed large in the work.

Roti was one of several artists invited to be part of a Living Walls event last summer. In the simplest terms, Living Walls is a non-profit organization that seeks to “promote, educate and change perspective about our public space through street art,” said its co-founder, 30-year-old Monica Campana. Walls throughout the city are its canvas. Some of the visiting artists paint walls legally in their home cities, some do it illegally.

“This is a way to communicate,” said Campana, a native of Peru. “Whatever goes in public space affects people. And whether you’re doing the work legally or illegally, you’re communicating.”

Living Walls sprouted in Atlanta three years ago. It was created by Campana and an art student who goes by Blackie. They wanted to give street artists like themselves a larger international platform to further what they see as a new movement in muralism for their generation. The idea was to invite graffiti and other street artists from around the world to an annual conference in Atlanta. The first year the budget was a meager $20,000, raised mainly through small fundraisers and tiny grants. Twenty artists showed up for a weekend that summer, slept on air mattresses and painted 12 murals, mostly in Atlanta’s core.

“That made us see that we didn’t need $100,000 to be successful,” said Campana.

Thanks to social media, the quality of the work, and the organization’s ambition, Living Walls has put itself in the vanguard of the street art movement. It garnered a glowing article in the New York Times. It also began attracting financial support from major arts contributors …

Read more: Rosalind Bentley, AJC

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