The street artist known as Mister Totem, who, as a teenager, honed his fantastical 3-D style while painting with influential Bronx muralists TATS Cru, has long made Atlanta his canvas—and counts members of the city’s food scene as his early benefactors. “In the ’90s, I painted everything,” he recalls of his hometown. “I’d walk the street in Atlanta carrying my book of work. I’d talk to all of the restaurant owners.”
Unlike a lot of other business owners at the time, restaurateurs—at least those in certain intown neighborhoods—appreciated his work and invited him to paint their walls. “Sometimes, I’d get paid; sometimes, I’d ask for a tab,” Totem says. “Yes, it was good exposure, but it wasn’t necessarily about the exposure. It was about the friendships we made.”
Those relationships include ones with the late Ria Pell of Ria’s Bluebird, Riccardo Ullio of Fritti, Clay Harper of Fellini’s and La Fonda, and Marco Blue of Marco’s Pita. Totem wound up painting murals for all of their restaurants. “Back then, it was different. We were [considered] weird, tattooed freaks,” he says of graffiti artists and restaurant people. “We were there for each other.”
Stephen Gannon, Ria’s current owner, recalls that in the restaurant’s early days, Totem was “a friend of ours with a ‘residency’ in Krog Street Tunnel. Now, he gets paid a bunch of money [to paint murals], but back then, we were just friends helping each other out.”
As Totem went on to gain art-world success (including 98,000 Instagram followers and a recent commission from music-streaming company Pandora) and as Atlanta’s street-art scene earned international acclaim (thanks in part to the years-long efforts of nonprofit Living Walls), the city’s restaurant community—and its art—evolved. Stuffy white-tablecloth establishments were replaced with more casual, convivial, communal dining rooms. And more and more restaurateurs began enlisting street artists to modernize their spaces.
Neighborhoods like the Old Fourth Ward and East Atlanta Village helped lead the charge. The oft-painted exterior wall of the Sound Table has been graced with ambitious murals such as Felipe Pantone’s psychedelic contribution to OuterSpace Project 2016 and, as of March, Greg Mike’s Super Bowl–themed, SunTrust-commissioned Atlanta Falcons composition.  At that same intersection, Boulevard and Edgewood, there’s ample eye-catching street art. Chris Veal’s pop art–styled, Lichtenstein-influenced Rush Hour adorns the side of the building that houses Edgewood Pizza. Across the street, murals of both Stacey Abrams and Colin Kaepernick decorate the facade of the bar Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium.
Over at Argosy in East Atlanta Village, Shaun Thurston’s massive closeup of an owl beams down from the restaurant’s interior back wall. Outside, along one of Argosy’s lengthy exterior walls, Thurston painted a fairytale-ish and even more humongous mural of a dragon battling a fox. On the flip side of the building, there’s a wildly colorful surrealist scene by Ukrainian art duo Interesni Kazki. And just up the street, the interior of culinary-world daredevil Octopus Bar is dominated by a mural of a red—you guessed it—cephalopod. The painting, Octopus Bar owner Nhan Le says, is part of the restaurant’s DNA. “It creates a certain energy.” It also sends a message: “We don’t have any rules or boundaries—we can do and cook whatever we want.”
These days, it seems more new restaurants than not are touting murals by local or national artists. Newly opened Junior’s Pizza in Summerhill, Buena Vida Tapas & Sol in Old Fourth Ward, and Boxcar in the West End boast murals with a modern aesthetic. At MTH Pizza in Smyrna, Hawkers Asian Street Fare in Old Fourth Ward, and Slim & Husky’s on the Westside, the murals lean more toward old-school graffiti.
That’s also true of the artwork inside two-year-old Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar just north of Decatur. Owner Sim Walker hired graffiti artist Roxanne “Lucy” Correll to infuse some “New York urban culture” into his Caribbean-meets-Southern restaurant on Clairmont Road. Walker grew up in New York City, but his family hails from Jamaica.
Walker expressed interest in something “simple yet animated” using black and white tones. The result was a multilayer mural of the restaurant’s name in bubble letters. “It looks like something you’d see on subway cars,” Walker says.
And it instantly conveys the restaurant’s historic-minded identity while fulfilling a modern obligation. “We’re living in the social-media era,” Walker says. “I wanted to make sure that with every picture someone took, the person looking at that picture would know where they were.”
This article appears in our April 2020 issue.