Camila Álvarez is a Colombian artist and a student at FIU who is working on a thesis about the social construction of place. Her research brought her to Atlanta to learn about a street-art initiative called Living Walls.
I’ve walked countless times along N.W. Second Ave, through the heart of Wynwood as most of Miami knows it, to delight in its colorful walls, its gourmet coffee, and its hipster watering holes. And something always seems off. There’s a synthetic feel that always leads me to look one block east, one block west, and remember that, for all its delights, Wynwood is just another poor Miami neighborhood, and that its rebirth as an Art District didn’t happen, as most Miamians seem to believe, spontaneously.
The truth is that the rebranding of Wynwood, historically an enclave of Puerto Rican immigrants, is mainly the work of two white developers: the late Tony Goldman (who had previously played a significant role in the gentrification of Soho and South Beach) and David Lombardi. After setting foot in Wynwood in the early 2000s, each was able to befriend leaders of neighborhood organizations and city officials. These alliances made it substantially easier for them to obtain demolition permits that led to increased rent gaps and the displacement of businesses and people. Then, in 2008, Goldman successfully lobbied the city to create the “Wynwood Café District” in order to obtain liquor licenses (which the local bodegas had never been able to acquire), thereby transforming urban space into a commercial area in the name of dollars. (To learn more about this history, read FIU alum Marcos Feldman’s dissertation on the subject.)
With all of the nitty-gritty taken care of, the developers needed something extra to market their urban confection, and they seized on the perfect ingredient: Art.
It was a stroke of a development genius. Especially in a city full of flashy tourists and boring suburbs, the raw allure of an open-air ode to graffiti would do the trick. It didn’t matter if the monthly gallery walks ended up becoming carnivals and the big bucks beer money. Less people spending more or more people spending less, that didn’t really matter. Just like it didn’t matter if the people who had been living in Wynwood for more than 60 years complained about not having a say in the fate of their neighborhood. As long as the land and rent prices kept rising, nothing else really mattered.
And it’s still that way. Though it doesn’t have to be.
Indeed, a young street artist from Atlanta, Monica Campana (the TEDx presenter in the above video), is pursuing an alternative method of spreading art throughout her city. Together with fellow street artist Blacki Migliozzi, Campana organized every kind of fundraiser, from paint drives and yard sales to carnivals and even a prom fundraiser, to launch Living Walls, the City Speaks, a conference on street art and urbanism, in 2010.
Having witnessed how popular street art had become in places such as England, France, and Germany, Campana and Migliozzi wanted to promote it in their hometown, says Campana.
“Blacki and I wanted to create a platform or dialogue about our cities and create new perspectives about our public space and our communities,” she says. “We wanted to influence people to care more about their city, be more intrigued, appreciate public art, walk and bike more, and just get to know their city more.”
In contrast to how Goldman and Lombardi used art to market Wynwood in dubious compliance with the wishes of neighborhood residents (see pages 260-265 of Feldman’s thesis), Campana and her team follow a more organic process. Because the Living Walls murals aren’t confined to any one Atlanta neighborhood, but spread all around the city, they have to deal with people from many different communities and respect their opinions, even though they are not always in the best interest of artists and art enthusiasts. Take the example of my favorite mural from the past conference, which depicted a woman whose shed hair has turned into a wolf. Painted in Atlanta’s Lakewood Heights neighborhood by Argentinian artist Hyuro, the mural was painted over by the city after several members of the community complained about it.
Because people often reject what they don’t understand, Campana and her team emphasize education as part of their project. Every year they have a team of artists and urbanists give lectures, open to the public and free, about art and the public space.
After the success of the conference in 2010 and 2011, Campana decided to do year-round programming and put out a call for interns and volunteers. Today, in addition to the volunteers, there are 21 people who, despite having other jobs and, in most cases, school commitments, dedicate their free time to helping to plan the Living Walls conference.
“The staff is nothing but a big family that got to know each other through many Living Walls’ projects and helped shape the organization into what it is now,” Campana says. “We all love each other and love what we do for Living Walls. I think commitment, lots of heart, and lots of passion to make change in our city is what keeps us moving together.”
Despite the trials they’ve faced, this group of young visionaries has managed to stick together to advance their mission, in the process earning a “Best Organization” award from the City of Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission.
This past August the Living Walls team brought street art photographer Martha Cooper to Atlanta to document the work of 26 amazing artists from all around the world, including Sten and Lex from Rome, Tika from Zurich, Neuzz from Mexico, Interesni Kazki from Kiev, and La Pandilla from Puerto Rico. Next up is a stop in Miami — fittingly, in Wynwood itself — in December for Fountain Art Fair, an Art Basel Miami Beach satellite fair for which some of Living Walls staff members are curating a show.
Until then, here are photos of Living Walls murals from around Atlanta.
All photos by Camila Álvarez (@camialvarez7)