Twenty years ago, Tyree Smith was a globe-trotting rapper. Now he spends his days inside a 15,000-square-foot warehouse inside a storage facility, plotting ways to turn western Atlanta neighborhood Adair Park into the next big arts district. Smith’s first step is the Artlanta Gallery, which he opened inside that warehouse last October. About 8,000 people have visited so far, including 2 Chainz, Janelle Monáe and the co-CEO of T.I.’s record label Grand Hustle.
Rappers and visual art aficionados have a history of partying together in Atlanta. Graffiti writer, video artist and muralist Dr. Dax was one of the original members of the Dungeon Family, the rap collective that birthed OutKast and Goodie Mob. Arts, Beats + Lyrics, founded by native Jabari Graham, is now a Jack Daniel’s-sponsored touring exhibition that had Master P as a headliner in 2015. Two years prior, Decatur party rap trio Travis Porter stopped by an old Baptist church to see an exhibition by acrylic painter and tattoo artist PaperFrank.
Artlanta is only the latest example, though unlike his peers, Smith also has the under-21 crowd, and an under-served Atlanta community, in mind.
When Smith, age 41, talks Artlanta, he speaks almost as fast as he used to rap about “the kids” — the gallery’s featured artists or patrons, ages 16 to 28. One of the paintings on the walls is of Cynthia, the Barbie parody from 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats. Another is of oddball rapper Young Thug, wearing a 16th-century ruff collar as if he was a wealthy Elizabethan, and not of the razed Jonesboro South projects. Keith Haring may have influenced these young artists, though they don’t have the same level of experience or connections for their work to be featured next to his.
“We would go to the Art Stroll and Flux and be like ‘Damn, my friends can do this, but we’ll never get a chance,'” Smith says. “Now, I can provide exposure for those people.”
“My brand of commercial is, a Ferrari pulls up to a bad neighborhood,” he says. “All these kids run up to the Ferrari like, ‘Hey mister, what are you doing? Are you selling drugs?’ The guy jumps up: ‘Man, I don’t sell drugs.’ ‘Well, you play basketball? You rap?‘ He’s like, ‘I don’t do none of that.’ ‘What do you do?’ He pops open the trunk and pulls out a painting — ‘I paint.’ They all turn around and point to one of their friends like, ‘don’t you paint?'”
Growing up, Smith hadn’t imagined being as involved in the visual arts as he is now. When he was in his early twenties, he rapped under the moniker Axe as part of New Jersey hardcore hip-hop outfit Outsidaz. By 1999, the 12-member group was gaining national attention after some of its rappers had toured with Eminem and were featured in the Fugees’ 1996 Grammy-winning album The Score. The bigger Outsidaz became, the more that Smith got to tour the world, seeing museums like the Smithsonian and the Louvre in the process.
By 2008, Smith had lived in Atlanta for seven years and was DJing Thursday nights at Slice’s old Castleberry Hill location. The pizza joint was already a go-to hangout spot for hip-hop locals. Meanwhile, galleries were popping up –the first sign that the neighborhood arts scene was booming. In late 2014, behind the nightclub Cloud IX, Smith opened a lounge-meets-art gallery called the Wolf’s Den.
“I was realizing that, out of the crowd of maybe 250 to 300 people forcing themselves in there, only 50 people were really there for the art,” he says. “I wanted to create a place where you can come and enjoy the art, as well as have fun at the same time.”
Artlanta is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during business hours. Sometimes at night, though, as late as 4 a.m., the gallery hosts live exhibitions that feature performances from hip-hop artists like EarthGang and Queen Cartel DJ Speakerfoxxx. Rapper Kap G, who recently made his acting debut in Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, comes to hang out, as does Trinidad James.
And the first sight they see upon entering Artlanta is a life-size checkerboard. There is a selfie booth — a hall closet with its door removed and walls covered in spray-painted streaks. During events, the smell of grilled cheese sandwiches being made wafts through the space. Sometimes the gallery doubles as a studio space. On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-March, artists filter in to start working on the next exhibition Eye A Door Art, using doors as their canvases. A PaperFrank painting hangs from the left back corner, which is about as reverent for Atlanta’s gallery culture as Artlanta gets.
Artlanta is located off Shelton Avenue, less than two miles south of Castleberry Hill and Atlanta University Center, yet it seems isolated from even the galleries housed there. Residents and government entities have debated over how to revitalize Artlanta’s immediate area since Fort McPherson shut down in 2011. People have proposed a retail district, a bioscience and jobs hub. Last summer, Tyler Perry bought 330 of Fort McPherson’s acres for his new film studio. But until more decisions are made, the only other sign of life at night besides Artlanta is Peaches, a strip club advertising $5 lap dances.
If all goes according to plan for Smith, that will soon change. This summer, Artlanta will launch a three-day arts and music event called Visually Sonic. Hip-hop festival A3C is in talks to sponsor, while “See You Again” rapper Wiz Khalifa is in talks to be DJing. Next door to Artlanta is a labyrinth with dirt on the ground and graffiti on its decaying walls. What appears to be the backdrop for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fight scene will become a street art gallery called Start, complete with a koi pond.
In 2013, Atlanta music journalist Maurice Garland argued on his personal site that “The Arts is the New Rap in Atlanta.” By that, he meant that residents were more excited to check out a gallery than head to a nightclub in this overcrowded hip-hop capital of the South. What helped was that those same crowds were starting to see hip-hop sensibilities in the visual arts, from painters like PaperFrank, Miya Bailey and Fahamu Pecou.
“We’re living in a space and time where a lot of the art that we’re looking at does really reflect the people that are looking at it,” Garland said to Creative Loafing later in 2013. The work featured in Artlanta functions the exact same way, though where rising artists like BMX Beesy and Grammy-nominated musicians are treated like peers.
“Janelle Monáe will walk through here looking at some art,” Smith says. “People will be like, that’s Janelle Monáe! But we’re all together, looking at the same thing. Looking at art.”