Living Walls brings legal street art to Atlanta

Artists work together to paint a mural beneath a railroad overpass in Atlanta in August as part of a public art process.

ATLANTA — At 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Sarah Emerson’s mural looked like 2,000 square feet of empty gray, striped with red doodles.

The previous evening, after being stopped and questioned twice by the police, she had traced the red outlines onto the 17-foot-tall walls with the help of an overhead projector, creating the curved contours of a subterranean landscape she would call “Underworld.”

Within a week, she planned to transform this skeleton of a painting on a Reynoldstown, Atlanta, railroad underpass into waterfalls, trees, birds, mushrooms and insects. The job ahead looked daunting. “I’ve never done anything this big,” she sighed, wiping a strand of blond hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist, her brush loaded with dark green.

Then she got to work.

All around Atlanta, other artists faced the same Big Empty and rolled up their sleeves. They are part of the third annual Living Walls conference, a gathering of 28 street artists from around the world who painted 18 monumental murals around the city. Artists working with the nonprofit Living Walls have transformed many areas of the city already. Downtowners are familiar with its huge alligator mural on Mitchell Street and the surreal sleeping figure on North Candler in Decatur, Ga.

The murals went mostly on private businesses, including the walls of Center Stage Theater. The conference included a gallery show, lectures, movies and a bike tour of Living Walls murals. It was the third Living Walls conference, the biggest so far and the first one to feature only female artists.

Many of the muralists come from the world of graffiti, including a 41-year-old Atlanta woman who prefers to be called by her tag, Olive47.

A dark-haired native of Chattanooga who is fascinated with gems and spirit animals, Olive47 creates legitimate, commissioned work, but also paints vacant buildings and other sites that are “extra-legal.” She showed off a block of buildings on Jonesboro Road that she was hired to decorate, buildings she covered in bright colors and fanciful creatures. The difference between vandalism and art?

“From the artist’s standpoint, it’s intention,” she said. “My interest is to enhance. When people see my work, I want them to be elevated.”

Embracing graffitists put Living Walls on both sides of a vexing issue. The city of Atlanta has dedicated resources to fighting graffiti, assembling an anti-graffiti task force, hiring a full-time officer to coordinate eradication efforts, bringing cases against graffiti vandals in municipal court.

At the same time, the city has fostered legitimate public art, commissioning murals and working with Living Walls and the Art on the Beltline project.

Monica Campana, executive director of Living Walls, said Living Walls is trying to offer graffitists a legal outlet for their work, and perhaps to change the attitude of people who hate graffiti. “At the end of the day, I’m getting people to talk more about their public space, which is what I want to do,” she said.