Atlanta Council Sends Private Murals Ordinance Back to Committee

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By A. Scott Walton, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News (November 04, 2014)

350_roti_mural(APN) ATLANTA — The Atlanta City Council, in a vote of 14 to 1, sent a controversial private mural ordinance back to the Community Development/Human Resources (CD/HR) Committee, during the Full Council Meeting on yesterday, Monday, November 03, 2014.

Cleta Winslow (District 4), who has expressed strong concerns about murals that had been painted on buildings in her district, was the one vote against referring the legislation back to Cmte; Winslow was in support of the legislation going forward.

The legislation, 14-O-1022, introduced by Winslow; Joyce Sheperd (District 12), and C.T. Martin (District 10), would give the Council veto power over applications to the City’s Bureau of Civic and Cultural Affairs, based on what Councilmembers deem acceptable or inacceptable, appropriate or inappropriate, art for public view and display.

Previously, the legislation had passed CD/HR on October 28, 2014, in a unanimous vote of six to zero, with Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) absent.  Winslow, Sheperd, Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large), Kwanza Hall (District 2), Ivory Young (District 3), and Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11) voted in favor.

Scarcely few grey areas surfaced Monday when the Council received public comments over private property owners’ rights to allow local artists to paint murals, including provocative ones,  on the sides of their buildings.

Instead, the opinions in favor and opposed were in sharp contrast to each other, and appeared to show a racial divide, with Black residents speaking in support of the ordinance, and White residents opposed.

After four hours of conflicting statements from the opposing sides, the Council voted to refer back to Cmte, and put off a decision for at least ninety days.

Among the proposed reforms: Applications for murals within public view would be filtered through the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs; the artist(s) identity and place of work/residence would be declared; and the suggested mural would be fully described.

Leading up to Monday’s vote, City Councilmember Mary Norwood (Post 2-at-large) had proclaimed her stance against the legislation at this time.

Norwood said she was in favor of allowing people directly involved with public arts displays to have their concerns heard.

The public comment portion of the Meeting began with a small but committed cadre of White artists, advocates, and attorneys, who asserted their concerns regarding their rights to free expression under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S.

That is, if the Council can arbitrarily restrict free speech, in the form of art, on private property, on the basis of the content of the speech, this could invite legal challenges.

These commentators were out-numbered by citizens who decried some murals as unwelcomed depictions of nudity and images they perceived as Satanic near Black churches, shops, and schools.

Liberal arts advocates, such as Atlanta attorney Gerry Weber, balked at the City Council blowback against muralists’ and property owners’ rights to display their murals of choice, because of freedom of expression concerns.

In recent years, concerned citizens and free spirits have clashed over large-scale murals, which were alternately deemed sacred or satanic, depending on the respective viewpoints.

Residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods–such as Pittsburgh, Vine City, and Chosewood Park–where massive murals have flourished in recent years–complained before the Council about the freedom some artists flaunt to depict images that many residents deem unsavory or disrespectful.

Those residents don’t take kindly to–who they perceive to be–rich kids coming in and painting full tableaus of demons or women with bushy vaginas on their neighborhood structures.

Two years ago, a mural depicting the mechanic birth of a man with a reptilian face by the French painter Pierre Roti on a University Avenue underpass sparked protests and was ultimately painted over by those offended.

That same year, a tableau by the Argentine artist, Hyuro, in southwest Atlanta’s Chosetown–depicting a woman shedding the restrictions of her dress–fueled similar outrage.

Advocates for artist groups, composed mainly of White visionaries who think they’re re-gentrifying forlorn districts, argue that their works contribute to a more colorful and inviting landscape for a city striving for international credibility.

One Black neighborhood activist rose up to dare street artists to take their work to the bridges and sides of buildings the city’s northern suburbs.

One White, long-haired and bearded hipster said Atlanta’s “positive vibe” would stall if artists weren’t free to express themselves with murals on inner-city exteriors.

“No other city, as far as we know of, requires its City Council to approve or veto murals on non-residential private property,” attorney Weber, speaking on behalf of the Living Walls group of muralists, argued.

To allay any artists’ fears about censorship disguised as bureaucracy, Councilwoman Winslow remarked, “It’s not about the naked woman or the pubic hair… it’s about the process.”

After assessing the squabble and sensing it was nowhere near conclusion Monday, City Council President Ceasar Mitchell quipped: “My only recommendations is that you find an imam, a rabbi, and a priest to figure this out.”

(END/2014)

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