Yet another Atlanta street art battle is looming. A City Council committee has picked up the thorny question of community input in public artwork, voting unanimously in favor of a controversial ordinance that tightens regulations on public murals on private property.
The city’s Community Development and Human Resources committee — Keisha Bottoms, Andre Dickens, Kwanza Hall, Joyce Sheperd, Cleta Winslow and Ivory Young — unexpectedly approved the legislation on Tuesday. While the ordinance’s supporters say it offers much-needed regulation of Atlanta’s burgeoning mural scene, critics argue the new layers of bureaucracy will clamp down on artistic expression and halt the city’s cultural momentum.
Many of the city’s arts advocates, who voiced opposition to the legislation earlier this year, claim to have been caught off guard, unaware that the ordinance was even on the committee agenda. In a statement, Living Walls, the nonprofit group that has produced more than a hundred murals across Atlanta since 2009, expressed disappointment that the council had moved forward with new legislation without artists’ input. The group is now consulting legal experts.
“We believe this legislation violates freedom of expression for property owners and artists alike and places an undue burden on those wishing to create art in our public spaces,” said Jasmine Amussen, communications director for Living Walls. “We are further disappointed to hear that the Atlanta City Council did not propose any alternatives or consult with any arts organizations in drafting this legislation.”
Councilwoman Sheperd, who drew up the legislation after a series of very public disputes in 2012 over city-sanctioned murals, dismissed such concerns, noting that she met with arts advocates several times over the last year. At a public work session last April, she said, she presented the amended version of the legislation and asked Living Walls and other critics of her ordinance to submit feedback.
“We gave Living Walls a copy of the substitute copy, we asked them to respond, and they have not responded,” Sheperd said. “I don’t want to go back and forth and get in another tit for tat. At this point, I don’t have anything else to say. If they don’t agree, they can come down to City Hall like anyone else.”
With the ordinance approved unanimously by the Community Development and Human Resources committee, it is now scheduled to be voted in block by the full city council — without any opportunity for public comment — at 1 p.m. on Monday, November 3. Mary Norwood, a city council member who is not on the community development committee, told ArtsATL that she planned to have the legislation removed from the consent agenda to allow for more public input.
“With anything that has differing viewpoints, I want to hear the arguments — for and against,” Norwood said, acknowledging that the legislation had been passed with very little feedback from the arts community.
Last week, Norwood removed her name as a sponsor of the legislation. “I am very interested in hearing what people on the ground, who are involved in the movement, have to say.”
Peter Ferrari, an Atlanta artist who has painted murals on private walls across the city, said he was not familiar with the amended legislation and had not heard of anyone who had been notified that the committee would be voting.
“It seems as if it was purposely kept secret from the arts community,” he said. “I can only imagine the fallout if they had tried to pull this stunt with any other industry. I’m shocked and outraged. Hopefully the word will get out and we can organize some opposition quickly.”
The new legislation would require an official permit for murals on private property. This already applies under existing city law, yet it is rarely enforced, and the new legislation is more detailed. After submitting documents to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and obtaining permits from multiple city departments, artists would have to present their ideas to their neighborhood planning unit (NPU) before obtaining final approval from the city council.
Sheperd, who lives in southwest Atlanta, said she was motivated to change the current legislation after finding herself caught in a bitter dispute about a Living Walls mural by French artist Pierre Roti in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. While many in the community celebrated the work — a surreal image of a human torso with a crocodile head and a serpentine tail — some claimed the creature was satanic. Others complained that the community had had little input and argued the mural had little relevance to their community, a historic African American neighborhood south of downtown.
Eventually, four protesters — including a former state representative — took the matter into their own hands, buffing over the mural with gray paint.
Supporters of Sheperd’s new ordinance argue it will prevent such spats and streamline the existing process to allow more public input. Council members will no longer be required to sponsor murals, and the process will instead be shepherded by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. The legislation aims to “create, codify and implement a permitting process for murals on private property that are visible to the public,” balancing artistic expression with other values, such as “protecting public safety,” and “creating an aesthetically pleasing environment and enhancing the appearance” of the city.
Critics, however, claim it introduces more bureaucratic channels that would stretch the approval process by more than 30 days and allows the city council to pass final judgment on artistic content.
When Sheperd introduced the legislation at the beginning of the year, legal experts voiced concern that its language was overly broad, potentially applying to anything from a wind chime to a garden gnome. It referred to all public art, which it defined as an “expression of creative skill or imagination in a visual form” intended to “beautify or provide aesthetic influences” on private property that is “visible from a sidewalk, street or public right of way.”
The amended legislation now refers specifically to murals on nonresidential properties. Yet even though its scope is narrower, the core First Amendment problems have not been resolved, according to constitutional attorney Gerald Weber, who successfully challenged Atlanta’s 2003 anti-graffiti ordinance that made it a crime for property owners to paint murals on their buildings without city approval.
The ordinance offers City Council final approval of murals, yet offers no standards for council to approve or reject them, Weber said.
“If Joyce Sheperd doesn’t like your political or religious beliefs, or even the color red, that could be the basis of rejecting a mural,” he said. “It’s a core First Amendment problem.”
By creating a lengthy approval process — six city entities would have to approve every mural, with the standards for each varying — Weber said that artists would have to jump through too many hoops. “Red tape and free speech don’t mix,” he said, noting that permit requirements for core protected speech have to offer clear standards and a quick process.
No one from the city’s arts community was present at Tuesday’s committee meeting, except for an elderly artist, Gilbert Young, who painted the nationally renowned Wall of Education mural in Cincinnati in the late 1970s. He spoke in favor of the proposal, arguing that “few of these [Living Walls] murals reflect the images of the communities in which they say they’re serving.”
Two of the men who whitewashed the Roti mural in 2012 also spoke in favor of the ordinance. “I’m one of the persons who painted over the wall,” said Johnny Floyd, president of the Pittsburgh Civic League. “I’m not ashamed to say it: if one goes up again, I’ll do the same.”
“We did everything right in opposing this mural on University [Avenue] at a time when Pittsburgh is trying to change its image,” added former state representative Douglas Dean. He complained that some of the mural’s supporters had made derogatory comments about people who lived in the neighborhood. “Some even used the ‘N’ word,” he added.
Kwanza Hall, a council member who has worked amicably with Living Walls over the last few years and would like to see more murals across Atlanta, told ArtsATL that Sheperd’s legislation might not be perfect, but it was an improvement. He said he voted for it in the hope of ending the gridlock.
“Do we pull the paper and hold it, just so the arts groups can again express concerns?” he asked. “Do we really want to dredge up all this fervor? Sometimes you have to lose the battle if you really want to gain the whole war. I would rather win the war.”