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Neighborhood vigilantes paint over Living Walls mural, raising questions of permits and public art

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This past Friday, a group defaced French artist Pierre Roti’s Atlanta mural created for this year’s Living Walls Conference. Even before the gray paint applied by that group could dry, however, a group alerted by Facebook to the defacement arrived to try to salvage the mural. Georgia Department of Transportation personnel assisted with the cleanup.

Roti’s work is not the first of the 2012 Living Walls murals to generate displeasure. A mural by Argentine artist Hyuro was marred with obscenity (“TAKE THIS [expletive] TO BUCKHEAD”) and then buffed away in mid-September, amid complaints over its depictions of nudity in proximity to places of worship. The Hyuro also drew complaints because the finished work differed from the proposed one submitted through Living Walls to city officials.

Similar problems related to neighborhood clearances and official permissions contributed to the imbroglio over the Roti mural, which covers a retaining wall overlooking University Avenue between Interstate 75/85 and Moton Avenue.

Pierre Roti’s mural before it was painted over by angry neighbors.

According to Atlanta City Council Member Cleta Winslow, whose District 4 encompasses the mural, Living Walls completed and submitted four pages of paperwork for the placement of the mural but failed to obtain from City Council an essential ordinance allowing the art. Furthermore, Winslow said, Living Walls personnel did not follow the course, recommended on the aforementioned paperwork, of meeting with residents of the area near the mural site.

“I found out [about the art several] days before the [Roti] mural went up. … I said, ‘You [Living Walls personnel] need to go to the neighborhood’ and talk with residents about your plans,” Winslow said. She said she heard about the imminent installation from Living Walls rather than from the appropriate government liaison, the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs, which bred additional confusion.

The trouble started immediately upon completion of the mural during the summer, when neighbors objected to the imagery of the massive painting, whose recognizable elements include a concatenation of fish being gobbled by one another and a figure that combines human and crocodile parts.

“When you come in and do your own thing and ignore the community, you’re going to have problems,” said former state legislator and Pittsburgh neighborhood resident Douglas Dean. “We spent $200,000 on a redevelopment plan for Pittsburgh. We have art in that plan. … I want to see art in this community that depicts the struggle in this community.”

Dean said he “had no chief objection to” the mural, apart from what he called Living Walls’ “not following procedure.” He acknowledged having a hand in painting over the mural, though he had no permit to do so.

Living Walls co-founder Monica Campana suggested that following procedure in this case was a less-than-clear undertaking. In order to install such a mural, she said, “You have to get approvals from the [Georgia] Department of Transportation, the [Atlanta] Office of Cultural Affairs and the Urban Design Commission,” in addition to insurance that protects the wall’s owner, believed by Living Walls to be Carey Limousine, the business situated atop the wall.

Campana said that OCA head Camille Love pointed out late in the process that Living Walls had failed to obtain the needed ordinance through City Council. After repeated attempts at communication, Campana said, she made contact with Winslow. She said she received oral permission from Winslow to install the mural, which Winslow denies. The council member pointed out that the certification form specifies, “The Atlanta sign ordinance requires that an ordinance approving this public art application be passed by the Atlanta City Council.”

Gallery photos by Ed Hall.

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