Living Walls: The City Speaks 2014

Story by Meghan Jackson

Trek Matthews located at 115-129 Powell St. Done in 2012. 

Trek Matthews located at 115-129 Powell St. Done in 2012. 

Since childhood, we’ve been taught that paint belongs on paper. We’ve been taught to color inside the lines or at least stay close enough. Paint on buildings means graffiti and paint indoors means a mess. However, Living Walls Atlanta has created an entirely new set of lines with The City Speaks conference. Monica Campana, the Executive Director and Founder of the organization, took a short break from the conference this year to speak to me about the event and the group in general.

“I was actually doing street art, and this was me after a time when I didn’t know what I was doing in my art career. I had dropped out of art school twice,” she tells me of how Living Walls came about. She then befriended another street artist named Blacki, who had studied Urbanism in Barcelona. Both of them felt drawn to street art and its effects. After learning about an opportunity to present ideas to be displayed at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery, they came up with the idea of Living Walls for an exhibit at and went from there.

Talking about the beginning of the Living Walls and the conference, Campana admits, “We had no idea what we were doing.” But listening to her talk about it now is a very different story. The group has projects (called “concepts”) going on year round, but the grand event is The City Speaks Conference, during which 17 walls are painted in 10 days by artists from all over the world, followed by four days of screenings, seminars, artistic celebration and a bike tour to see all of the completed murals.

This is the conference’s fifth year, spreading a new crop of paintings throughout the city. For Monica, that means 17 walls, 17 artists, 21 staff members and over 60 volunteers that need to be fed and accommodated in various locations during the process. Over the years of the conference, she’s learned that logistically, it’s better to create pockets of walls within the same area, rather then spreading the murals farther apart. So, they focus on a few areas each year. “In the beginning I always paid attention to the Old Fourth Ward. It is the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and you don’t necessarily see much signage that shows you that. So it was a way to highlight it. We’re painting three walls in Bankhead this year — there are neighborhoods that really need this and I hope that little by little we can work more and more with them.”

Clearly, a lot of thought is put into these 14 days; choosing the artists, the designs, the locations, getting sponsors and dealing with the challenges that come up along the way. While Living Walls may not yet be a mainstream household name, it definitely holds merit in the artistic community. Artists around the world send Campana work, in hopes to be chosen to participate in The City Speaks, which is by invitation only. She and her staff carefully sift through each others' recommendations and make decisions based on votes. The final 17 artists are chosen based on varying factors including location (international, national and local) and style of work.

Gaia, Greg Mike and Swampy; 2010; at 902 Dekalb Avenue.
Gaia, Greg Mike and Swampy; 2010; at 902 Dekalb Avenue.

After the artists are chosen, they must submit a sketch of their idea for approval by Campana, the wall owner and the city. Murals range greatly from having a message to sometimes just purely adding color to a wall. And harmony between all parties is a continuing work in progress. “We are still trying to figure out how we can work with everyone. Because it is public art. It’s not gonna be perfect and there’s no way to make it perfect. Not everyone is gonna like it. So we are really trying to work with the city and figure out how to make this process make sense.”

And though Living Walls may deal with resistance from the city at times, they seem to have little trouble acquiring sponsors. The W Hotel, MailChimp, Tumblr and many others have added their names to the sponsorship list. As far as food, the artists and volunteers are eating like Atlanta royalty, with donations from restaurants such as JCT Kitchen, Empire State South, Gato Arigato and Bantam & Biddy. However, the staff is still prepared to do whatever is necessary to make the conference a success. For example, they personally make all of the breakfasts each day for the participants.

It seems like a pretty promising journey from the outside. What was originally described as something that “just happened” has now blossomed into a citywide conference bringing people together with the mission of promoting, educating and changing perspectives about public space via street art. “We wanted to keep the word street art,” Monica says. “It’s key. We wanted to change perspectives about our spaces and how we as community members have the power to make a difference and literally, physically change our environment.” This year the conference began in July and will run until August 17. The art, however, will be around much longer.