A decade ago, the word Atlanta came to be synonymous with hip hop. A-Town, Hotlanta, the Dirty Dirty—Atlanta took it upon itself to throw its name in with the industry originators and, in doing so, earned the respect (and the cash money) from the culture at large. The movement, which brought us such luminaries as Outkast, Ludacris, and T.I., was a tremendous boon for our city, both for our finances and our overall reputation as a musical Mecca.
And while, thanks to emerging MCs and producers and a proven infrastructure, that movement continues to provide us with relevance and commerce, a growing number of Atlantans feel as though our city can be doing more—that other titles in other realms can be won.
One such arena is our burgeoning art scene. When once Atlanta might have been thought of as just a big ole’ Southern town, the efforts of our local art community have ensured that we are now viewed as a contender in our own right. The High Museum is a beacon for the surrounding region of the country and ongoing projects such as Living Walls bring a truly metropolitan air to the Southern vernacular.
Much like the hip-hop movement that offered the world a fresh take on our city in the late 1990s, the art movement also relies heavily on grassroots events and initiatives to build its momentum. One event in particular, long known as a trademark of the hip-hop community, is being refitted—the battle.
This farm-team method of discovering talent has spawned some of the greatest MCs of our time, with up-and-comers cutting their teeth on the mic in head-to-head exchanges with others out to prove themselves the best and most original. This system is time-tested. Those with the courage compete and those with the talent advance. The atmosphere is steeped in pressure and spontaneity. It’s this atmosphere and all of its inherent benefits that the art community is seeking to duplicate.
The battle art scene in Atlanta may be new, but it’s fast making itself apparent—and it may have started with, as many battles do, a challenge.
“Then she started asking what qualified me to even be on the blog talking art? Who did I have in my collection? What did I know? Where the conversation went was this attack on my academic art standing. My defense was a simple, ‘I am better than you and I will prove it,’” recounts Fabian Williams, founder of the World Wide Art Federation, about an encounter he had with another artist on a blog site in 2009.
“A few days later I was taking a shower and it came to me visually. It made sense, the trash talk we exchanged and then the live painting and then more talk. But it had to be fast. I didn’t want to watch me paint my own pictures. It takes me days to create my level of detail. It had to be fast…like a cooking show,” Williams recalled.
That idea has turned into a live spectacle, complete with musical intros, crowd noise, and championship belts.
“The appeal is in the challenge of expressing yourself in an unconventional way, and giving the public the opportunity to witness and participate in the making of art,” says Grace Kisa, an artist who has participated in numerous WWAF events.
Even though every MC wants to be the ‘illest’ in town, there is always a challenger.
Founded in 2010 by the enigmatically monikered Jinx Strange, Art League Atlanta offers a similar arrangement for artists, minus perhaps some of the WWAF’s wrestling-inspired theatrics. After raising over $5,000 in fundraising and charitable events and winning Creative Loafing’s “Best Art Party” in 2011, the ALA is bringing the battle art format to the public’s attention. With 13 seasonal league events, seven offshoot shows, and about 10 fundraisers so far, it has been a very busy year for Mr. Strange.
“I started trying to think of a way to create shows that would have broader crowd appeal and not only focus on their skills, but build a bit of rock-star fandom around them as well,” explains Strange.
With participating artists working in professional animation, graphic design, and even professional body painting, Art League Atlanta showcases how experienced artists contend when faced with the pressure of a surrounding crowd. The environment is lower key than that of the World Wide Art Federation, the crowd less boisterous. And while the pieces produced at these kinds of events are not necessarily meant to demonstrate the full extent of artists’ abilities, these flash-art creations do still have their place in the buyer’s market.
“We held an auction at the end of each show for the created pieces, which ensured that the artists would make some money, and that patrons were leaving with brand new work after every show,” says Strange. “Work that had a story behind it, in which they were part.”
Williams, for his part, doesn’t mind having another kid on the block. “I think there’s room for my version and theirs, he explains, adding coyly. “I wouldn’t mind my artists battling theirs one day, though.”