The 240-foot mural, which depicts a grandiose fantasy scene of an urban machine producing a man with a crocodile head, was painted earlier this summer during Living Walls Concepts, the year-round version of the annual summer street art conference hosted by the nonprofit public art organization of the same name.
But on Nov. 9, a small group of Pittsburgh residents haphazardly painted over the piece, which some members of the predominantly African-American community said featured "demonic imagery." An intense debate erupted over what role the community should play in deciding public art and City Hall's policies regarding murals on private property.
In a Nov. 21 email to GDOT, city attorney Robin Shahar advised the state agency that Living Walls did not follow the proper procedure for approving a mural on private property. However, she added that the decision on what to do with the mural was GDOT's to make.
"As you are aware, the City does not have jurisdiction over State land," Shahar wrote. "The City cannot enforce its approval and permitting requirements to activity occurring on State property except upon request or authorization by the State. No such request or authorization has occurred regarding the University Avenue installation. Therefore the decision of whether to retain the installation lies solely with the State."
According to emails sent the following week, Emory McClinton, the State Transportation Board member who represents the area, spoke with Winslow about the mural and told Shahar GDOT would remove the mural.
GDOT Spokeswoman Jill Goldberg told CL that since the organizers didn't follow proper procedure - despite the fact that, by nearly all accounts, they took the steps presented to them by city officials - the state agency will remove the painting. She added that GDOT's public art policy prohibits works that "include any content that could potentially divide a community."
"They didn't intentionally do anything that was trying to not be in compliance," Goldberg said. "We're not angry or upset. They thought they were on private property, but it turns out they were on a state-owned property. And based on that, we need to follow the rules and regulations for these types of installations."
Nathan Bolster, Living Walls' executive director of operations, said he was impressed that GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long called the organization and asked if the group wanted to paint a replacement mural before work crews visited the scene.
"We told them we'd be happy to do it but that the time constraints before they agreed to paint over it were too tight," he said.
At a press conference held shortly after the residents painted over the mural in November, Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow, who represents the district that encompasses the neighborhood, said she and her colleague, Joyce Sheperd, who represents nearby communities that supported the piece, planned to open a dialogue between the opponents and supporters about the controversy.
However, no meeting has taken place - and it's questionable if one will happen before the mural ceases to exist.
Winslow told CL today that Pittsburgh leaders said they'd "take the leadership in that. So I stepped back." Sheperd said she wanted to wait until more facts were gathered about the permitting process.
"I have been in meeting after meeting with community people on both sides," she told CL. "I've heard from both sides continously for the last month. And the conlsuion I came to was, based on the fact that if we have another meeting, it's not going to help. People dig their heels in the sand on both sides. I don't like it. And I don't want to be in another meeting where all we're going to have is people screaming and hollering at each other."
Sheperd is meeting tomorrow with the Pittsburgh community, which she will represent in January when new district boundaries take effect, and plans to issue a press statement with her views.
"We're disappointed that it's being covered up," said Living Walls' Bolster. "We're disappointed it was vandalized. It was a very beautiful piece in an area that previously didn't have anything of the sort."
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