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Art in Atlanta: Who Gets To Decide? [Opinion]

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The city of Atlanta is a canvas for self-expression. Through graffiti, places that have been left to age are restored with a new life. These expressions often come in the form of tags or bright-colored signatures made on walls using spray paint. While some are more creative than others, universally tags are a way to anonymously announce, “I was here, I’m real and what I think matters.” In a world that profits off their silence, graffiti artists have found a way to take back their voices. 

Drawing on walls has been a custom throughout history, existing as early as 30,000 BC in France. Murals have been seen in a variety of cultures since the beginning of time, such as Egypt, Italy, France, and the Mediterranean Sea. Methods for making murals have changed as people find new creative ways to fill the void of blank walls. Whether using collaging posters with colorful designs, or lime wash from ancient times, murals are art pieces that are spread across the walls of a building or public place. To this day murals are commissioned by not only businesses but also cities that pay artists to paint the sides of walls with welcoming illustrations for those driving by. 

Graffiti painted on a barrier wall next to 755 North Avenue. (credit: Elise Davis)

Recently, The Atlanta BeltLine “Pilot Program” was created with the goal of removing graffiti along the trail to beautify Atlanta and “ensure that the BeltLine is maintained in a way that our grandchildren will this city treasure.” While they have decided to leave the Krog Street Tunnel, this project still conducts weekly graffiti removals. This project is taking away a form of art that has been practiced for centuries and evolved over time, as artists found increasingly creative ways to paint walls. 

Graffiti started to boom in Atlanta around the 1990s but dates back to the 1920s and 1930s in the form of gang-affiliated tags on train cars and building walls as a way of claiming territory. The transition to artistic illustrations found all over Atlanta came with the plan for “The New South” carried out in the 1960’s. Atlanta was renovated after the destruction from the Civil War in an attempt to emulate a southern version of New York. Reconstruction left parts of the city untouched and deserted while others were modernized. The pieces of the city that were neglected during this project became repurposed by the younger generations as hangout sites. Abandoned buildings and underpasses became a place of partying and acts of teenage defiance as they sprayed the walls with color and stylized tags. 

A mural that spreads across the side of Rag-O-Rama. (credit: Elise Davis)

Atlanta has come to be a landmark for graffiti and wall art, having many areas with walls crowded with spray paint. The creativity of the signatures has won over many people, making these colorful destinations a place of interest among both tourists and residents. The popularity of graffiti has also created new opportunities for creatives. Artists have rented out or bought wall space to tag or paint, in addition to businesses commissioning them to illustrate designs on the walls of their buildings. 

The number of blank walls started to dwindle as graffiti-filled areas such as the Krog Street Tunnel, Little FivePoints, Pullman Yards, and the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark and various tunnels on the BeltLine trail began to overflow with art. Graffiti artist Malcolm Turtin bought wallspace on the BeltLine tunnel to spray paint, and now holds classes there. Turtin has been spray painting for seven years and works as a full-time artist, holding classes and being commissioned for wall art. After hosting classes he usually covers his area of the wall in a welcoming sign or background for people who want to take photos next to all the graffiti art. He has also worked on bigger projects, collaborating with other artists, saying “on projects like those you have to.” He said he thinks street art “adds rhythm that has been missing from art, like from galleries and everything. It feels more unique and personal. Less commercial and less forced” to the community. If it were to go away, everything would look intentionally lifeless and corporate. 

Photo of the top of the slope at the BeltLine Tunnel. (credit: Elise Davis)

Non-profit organizations and independent artists have been devoted to making a career out of wall art. Since 2010, The Living Walls, for example, has painted murals around Atlanta to bring attention to underrepresented voices. Working on projects like “Murge,” a mural that portrays how people see the world differently, can communicate messages and bring together communities. Murals add artistic value to areas and continue to be appreciated by residents and tourists alike, without the cost of museum admittance fees.

Attempts to erase Atlanta’s art history are being made such as the Pilot Program which wipes graffiti that has been a part of Atlanta’s culture for decades. The Pilot Program is choosing what gets to be considered art and what doesn’t, respecting some areas of art and painting over others. Pouring $16 million into painting over the skatepark and other areas, the Atlanta BeltLine claims to be cleaning and improving the BeltLine so it is better for everyone. CEO Clyde Higgs said, “We are very excited to launch this new pilot to help our friends at City of Atlanta Parks keep the BeltLine clean and enjoyable for all users.”  However, they’re deciding for the people what they want, claiming to be doing this for the next generations and spending money that could’ve been used to expand the BeltLine. The BeltLine community doesn’t need an expensive graffiti removal service — it needs to be expanded and maintained. 

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