Heated debate over art ordinance

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This mural by French artist Pierre Roti, was the subject of much debate during Monday’s city council meeting. Photo by Fred Noble

Tempers flared during an Atlanta City Council meeting Monday, when debate over public murals pitted art advocates against neighborhood groups in a showdown with tense racial and class overtones.

At issue was an ordinance that would allow the city to sign off on proposed murals on private property. After hearing some heated testimony on both sides of the issue, the council delayed action on the measure, proposed by Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd. Instead, it was referred back to committee.

Discussion of the issue dominated the meeting. Representatives of Living Walls, the non-profit group that has sponsored dozens of murals around town, found themselves squaring off against community leaders from the Pittsburgh, Chosewood Park and other intown neighborhoods.

One commenter stormed from the council chambers, banging the doors behind her, aggrieved by charges of racism from another commenter.

In general, the residents of the economically-depressed inner city neighborhoods, most of them African-American, charged that outside artists created public works with no consideration for their feelings

“We were insulted over and over again,” said former state representative Douglas Dean, of the Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Two murals sponsored by Living Walls in 2012 were the focus of many of Monday’s complaints, one featuring a surrealistic alligator-headed man, the other showing a woman in various states of undress. Dean and a group of helpers painted over the alligator-themed mural, which was created by French street artist Pierre Roti.

While some neighborhood residents were outraged by the nudity, council members were intent that artists follow city protocol, a process they accuse Living Walls of ignoring.

“It’s not about the naked woman or the pubic hair,” said councilwoman Cleta Winslow. “It’s all about the process.”

Artists who spoke out against the ordinance worried that the it establishes no guidelines by which proposed murals should be judged. “It will deter property owners from commissioning art and the community will be the one that suffers,” said muralist Peter Ferrari.

Attorney Gerald Weber, who successfully fought against similar restrictions in a case the city brought against a property owner several years ago, said the issue is one of first amendment rights. “No other city in the country as far as we have discovered, requires its city council to consider and without standards approve or veto every mural on non-residential private property,” he said.


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