In 2016 Monica Campana, the cofounder and executive director of Atlanta street art festival Living Walls, and Marian Liou, the founder of We Love BuHi, a social media love letter to Buford Highway, met while applying for fellowships at downtown’s Center for Civic Innovation. The organization’s six-month Civic Innovation Fellowship supports young entrepreneurs determined to help shape the city. “Immediately, there was this deep connection and a natural affinity and understanding. She’s an immigrant, and I’m a child of immigrants,” says Liou. “We both had this feeling of, ‘Wow, we could create something amazing and beautiful that would have a lot of impact.’” They decided to partner and bring Living Walls to Buford Highway.
Since then Campana and Liou have been together constantly, collaborating on ideas to address some of the issues facing Buford Highway, specifically the six-mile stretch of road just north of Buckhead that is home to a United Nations–worth of businesses and communities. Gentrification is rapidly encroaching: In nearby Doraville, an old GM plant will soon be redeveloped into shops, offices, parks, and residences. Property values keep climbing in nearby neighborhoods like Brookhaven. Campana and Liou’s plan: upend the mural festival format that Living Walls helped popularize to advance the stories and needs of Buford Highway residents—before developers’ bulldozers come knocking.
Campana, a former SCAD student and artist, founded Living Walls in 2010 with street artist Blacki Migliozzi. It was a grassroots response to the pricey Conference on New Urbanism in Atlanta that year as well as an effort to add to the city’s well-established graffiti scene and jump on the then-nascent street art trend. In its infancy the organization was bold and brash, bringing 18 U.S. and international artists to paint for 10 days its first summer in 2010 and convening a series of discussions on blight, art, and public space. When Migliozzi left after the first year, Campana drove Living Walls forward with an army of volunteers. By 2015 her organization had covered the city in more than 100 artworks, from the reclining alligator on Mitchell Street downtown to the Old Fourth Ward wheatpastes depicting iconic civil rights moments.
That same year Liou, an attorney and Buford Highway resident, launched the We Love BuHi Instagram account, becoming an advocate for the neighborhood and its residents. Liou moved to Buford Highway in 2014 during a divorce and, after starting We Love BuHi, discovered it helped her “reclaim pieces” of herself and her Chinese American identity.
Campana, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Peru in 1998 when she was 15, also spent the past few years coming to terms with her own identity. She says she only recently began to recognize the pressure she felt to live up to American cultural standards and the toll that it had taken on her. “Forever I’ve had such a lack of confidence because I’ve been trying to assimilate so hard,” she says. “So I started to unlearn.” That “unlearning” has influenced this new project with Liou, which is focused on working to celebrate the voices and experiences of immigrants.
In the spring Campana and Liou began scouting along Buford Highway for a location for a new Living Walls Conference. They also began reaching out to artists. The final group of nine—all people of color, mostly women, and from diverse backgrounds—includes Buford Highway resident Roberto Hernandez and other Atlanta artists such as Dianna Settles and Yoyo Ferro, as well as national names like Michelle Ortiz (Philadelphia), Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (New York City), and Jetsonorama (Navajo Region).
The pair prioritized input from community partners, including the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, Athena’s Warehouse, Cross Keys High School, and local government, and planned months of conversations between residents and artists to inform the murals and installations. “We want to hold accountable everybody that’s involved in this project, and that’s the artists, our organizations, and the community stakeholders,” Campana says.
It’s a new approach for Campana and Living Walls, which has been criticized in the past for lack of community involvement. In 2012 a mural by Argentinean artist Hyuro that included female nudity caused an uproar in southeast Atlanta and was ultimately buffed. Later that year, residents of southwest Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood debated the merits of a 240-foot painting by French artist Pierre Roti that depicted sea creatures devouring each other. Some members of the historically black neighborhood called the artwork “demonic,” and detractors painted over it.
In both cases, the confrontations raised questions about who exactly Living Walls’ art was for and whether artists should be left alone to pursue their visions—even when the work is part of a public space.
“I really hope she does her due diligence,” says Mr. Totem, a Buford Highway resident and longtime Atlanta graffiti writer and artist who was commissioned by the surrounding neighborhoods to paint a new work on Hyuro’s wall following the 2012 conference. “Buford Highway is not a place to jump in and do what you want. Pay attention to us and involve us.”
This year Campana and Liou resolved to put the Buford Highway community at the center of the conversation, a move that earned applause from local business owners such as Peter Chang of A.C.T. Investments, which owns Chinatown Mall.
“At some point, I said, ‘I’m going to break every rule of the street art festival format,’” says Campana. “Hopefully we can start changing things because we are influencing the public space, we’re influencing cities, and [street art festivals] are not doing a great job at doing that.”
“We both know that infrastructural improvements, public art, they’re all precursors to gentrification,” says Liou. “At the same time, you can’t [stop it] from coming. I’ve always felt like the best way to prepare for that is to become more involved in the process. Empowering the community to really take ownership of its own future.”
Marian Liou’s favorite Instagram posts
More than food
People don’t normally think of carnivals when they drive through Buford Highway, Liou says. “It’s full of fun and life. We’re all the same. We want to have fun with our families in our communities.”
Young entrepreneurs like Pibool Koonvirak, who owns a Thai rolled ice cream shop, represent “the future of Buford Highway. If I can highlight first-generation immigrants who invest and start new businesses, I will have done my job.”
Aura and Sergio Alvarez, the owners of Xelapan Cafeteria, started off making pastries at home, Liou says. “It’s a mom and pop. How do we encourage more of that economic activity?”
This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.