In August of 2010, BURNAWAY featured an online panel discussion of the Living Walls Conference. Click here to read what our guests had to say!
We recently went for a trip around the city to see what the walls of Atlanta had to offer. Much of the outdoor artwork created during Living Walls, the exhibition and symposium on street art and urbanism held in Atlanta in August, still can be seen on Dekalb Avenue or within a block or two of that street. Other examples are scattered around town within the I-285 perimeter. Some murals remain untouched, while others have already evolved, have been painted over, or have inspired new pieces nearby. (Changes may have occurred even since we took our survey.) The following four walls include two “official” pieces and two created independent of Living Walls.
902 Dekalb Avenue: Swampy, Gaia, and Greg Mike (Living Walls)
Swampy’s horned, skeletal carcass swallowed a bunch of red crystals and took a nap under a cloudy sky with the moon and the stars. The scene is psychedelic, yet dark. The stars are reminiscent of the sort you might find in a child’s interpretation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The long horns and skull produce an image not easily forgotten.
Gaia’s scared child stands between a symmetrical setting of skulls, cabins, and leaves. The line quality is much like an ink drawing normally found on paper, not something typically seen in mural work. The swollen face, wide-open stare, and long, bushy hair portray something like a lost orphan. The skulls are surrounded by what appears to be acorns (or bullets?), and stars rest above the little wooden cabins and two huge leaves. The gestural quality, symmetrical repetition and strange blend of subject matter create a sense of death, loneliness, and what could be a sad dollar bill.
Greg Mike presents his iconic, chipped-toothed blockheads, except this time they’re ready to do battle. A figure I like to think of as “Triangle Head” brandishes a sword resembling a pin; the pitchfork held by his purple blockhead brother looks like it belongs to Poseidon. To their left another one laughs with a rainbow running through its eye socket. The scene is presented under a black sky with gray clouds. The graphic or cartoonish rendering recalls something intended for Adult Swim. Good times.
The three pieces are rendered very differently, but their consistent use of black brings them all together.
142 Walker Street in Castleberry Hill: Anonymous (Independent)
When I came across this wall, I wasn’t sure if I had actually found the Living Walls piece by Faber or if I had just found some sort of kiddie art. The mural turned out to not be affiliated with conference at all; Faber’s piece was in a separate location nearby.
The message “you are beautiful” is uplifting, but the depiction of the waves carrying the words left something to be desired. What happened here? The water or the text could have been developed much more. Is this mural a good use of space? What sort of lessons did Living Walls provide that could apply to work like this?
1630 Dekalb Avenue: Doodles (Living Walls)
Doodles’ anthropomorphized figures and poke-a-dotted cyclopes hold candles, lanterns, and bow and arrows. A deer walks over a head growing flowers from its face. Like in Swampy’s mural, the scenario here is somewhat psychedelic, but less dark and more celebratory like a circus.
The naïve line quality is mostly outline and decorative. The muted green of the background brings the energy down a bit, but it’s still a fun world of weird.
A single eerie eye peeks out at us through an open, diamond-covered tent. The dog-headed sentinel seems to be hording an orange, glowing orb. Did she capture a miniature sun or perhaps a glistening orange? The yellow half-moon on the left sets the hour while a black starry portal is opened up behind the cyclopes. It’s as if these creatures are holding a strange nighttime ritual: The bird-headed sentinel goes for an evening hunt not noticing the deer sneaking away behind him.
The four friends seem to be sporting something like sparsely painted henna tattoos or war paint. Their symmetric stances and flattened shapes resemble a scene found on an ancient Egyptian wall or, as was suggested to me, a scene on glazed Greek pottery.
Edgewood and Krog Street: Jordan Seiler (Independent)
For a length of about three weeks, this artwork stood on the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Krog Street. A particularly fine specimen of unofficial public art, it cleverly covered an entire surface of a building with white paint like a gallery wall. White is a very powerful color when used outside, where few things are naturally that bright. As a background it effectively grabs the attention of passersby, yet highlights nothing more than a playful, jagged line. It’s as if a design element from the bottom of a gigantic advertisement has escaped around a corner. I wonder why the artist chose not to paint the trees? In an interesting twist of logic, there was a will to transform vacant private property, yet care was taken not to harm the living plants.
Many will assume this was part of the art made for Living Walls that still litters our streets with surprising new visual features. But the Living Walls map has nothing listed in this location. When I asked about it, organizer Blacki Migliozzi told me that Jordan Seiler, a speaker at the conference, made this piece as an added bonus. Though unsanctioned, this design deserves some honor in that it is something beyond the dictatorship of strict graffiti style. (Click here for more photo documentation of this work’s evolution.)
More and more I am happy to see a wave of abstract, designerly graffiti. (Another example is MOMO). The only difference between this kind of work and graphic design is the risk it takes to be public and not engage with capitalism.
Now, new layers have encroached the wholeness of Seiler’s piece. First was the tag; then an actual advertisement placed inside the lovely petite billboard with the rounded metal corners. Soon it will be entirely gone (if not already).
But this extreme temporality gives extra urban value. In our age, artworks may crop up like magnificent mushrooms or tiny wild flowers at the edge of a hiking path: Like these ephemeral plants, public art can also disappear in a day. Catching sight of it is special; it means you were alert and watching.
This is the a gift of those who are willing to make art for free, impermanently, at risk of arrest, and without credit (except perhaps for recognition on YouTube or Vimeo …). To know that these individuals lurk among us as we traverse the normality of practical life is indeed an inspiration.
Seiler’s website called Public Ad Campaign is quite political in its intention:
“By visually altering and physically interacting with the public environment, residents become psychologically invested in their community. Outdoor advertising is the primary obstacle to open public communications. By monetizing public space, outdoor advertising has monopolized the surfaces that shape our shared environment. Private property laws protect the communications made by outdoor advertising while systematically preventing public usage of that space.”
Such work reminds us that a city should be only partially controlled. As Atlanta grows in size, density, and activity, the resulting chaos will be a beautiful thing, if embraced appropriately. It is healthy for a city to show public signs of expressive freedom. Some artists can’t be trained to jump through miles of red tape or behave in a gallery setting. Sometimes following the rules, filling out the forms, and asking for permission takes the life out of an artwork. Wild things taste good.