By David Pendered
Taggers as a focus group. That’s a new twist in Atlanta’s uneasy accord with graffiti and is one being taken by the developers of PATH400, who think good graffiti can keep amateur and vulgar taggers from leaving their mark.
The way Denise Starling describes it, taggers are helping to improve the visual experience of PATH400. They have already help find places for future, sanctioned artwork. The more Starling talked, the more taggers came to embody another of the focus groups she’s watched in nearly a decade spent overseeing the trail’s development in her role as executive director of Livable Buckhead.
“I see the tagging that’s happening as them saying, ‘This is something that is ugly and we’re going to hit it,’” Starling said.
Starling offered her thoughts in the context of graffiti starting to appear on sound walls being installed along Ga. 400. The walls are part of the mile-long trail that’s to open this autumn, connecting the Miami Circle warehouse district with Lenox Square. Tags here have inspired Livable Buckhead to come up with ideas for a replacement tags – identifying the trail as PATH400.
“They’re tagging a blank surface,” Starling said. “It’s not necessarily a bad suggestion. Sound walls aren’t pretty. It’s almost like the community is speaking and saying, ‘This needs something here.’”
Starling is careful to observe that she’s not declaring open season on tagging along PATH400. The issue is more nuanced.
The notion is that taggers will identify surfaces along this southern portion of PATH400 that have high visibility, and for these surfaces to be decorated with artwork sanctioned by Livable Buckhead. The organization has a record of sponsoring art displays along the trail – such as one on mental health.
Once taggers have identified high-visibility areas, Livable Buckhead can recruit artists to decorate the surfaces identified by taggers. Groups such as Living Walls and WonderRoot could be brought in to help with a design competition that promotes community participation in PATH400, Starling said.
Taggers are less likely to mark a decorated wall than they are a barren surface, Starling said. Taggers who do vandalize existing work can expect to be photographed by the numerous security cameras trained on the trail.
Prosecuting vandals may be a challenge.
Atlanta has an anti-graffiti ordinance on the books that prohibits drawing on public or private surfaces.
However, Atlanta has signed a federal consent agreement in 2017 to not enforce another anti-graffiti measure still on the books. This provision requires artists to have permission from the city to paint on public or private structures. The lawsuit was filed by a group of artists including Fabian Williams, a.k.a. Occasional Supperstar (sic); Peter Ferrari, a.k.a. PLF; Benito Ferro, a.k.a. Yoyo Ferro; Grant Henry; and /sister Louisa’s Church Murch, LLC., according to their complaint.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg ordered the city in 2018 to pay the artists’ legal fees in the amount of $46,639.02. The lead attorney, Gerry Weber, billed at $520 an hour.
The artwork chosen to flank PATH400 in its southern segment likely will have an urban flavor. The viewer can decide if it’s art or graffiti.
“Some will say that graffiti art is not the Buckhead style,” Starling said. “Maybe it needs to be less graffiti-like and more like a mural. This is a part of Buckhead that’s different because it’s an unknown area, where there is all this infrastructure. It’s a good opportunity for us to do some things that are edgier and wouldn’t fit into the community somewhere else. But it makes sense there.”
The infrastructure Starling mentioned doesn’t leap to mind. That may be because such care has been taken to minimalize it. The list includes trestles for tracks owned by MARTA and Norfolk Southern Railway to cross over Ga. 400. Starling sees them decorated as bean stocks, a la Jack and the Beanstock, or flowers. Plus, MARTA has a substation located in the small, non-descript building adjacent to the highway.
“I want to wrap that thing with a mural,” Starling said of the substation. “We want to take some things that are currently a visual detriment and make them part of the experience, and fun.”