What defines graffiti as art or vandalism?

It’s in the eye of the beholder
Photograph by Forrest Aguar

On January 6, a 50-year-old resident of a home near Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood walked out to find his trashcan and house tagged with what looked like gang graffiti. That same month, when Living Walls—which has produced more than 100 vibrant street murals across the city—announced a one-year hiatus of its annual conference/paint-ins, fans were up in arms. Around the same time, the Atlanta Police Department announced that two “notorious” taggers had been charged with felonies; one of them had been documented allegedly scrawling “NEATO” in 150 places across the city.

The three episodes encapsulate street art in Atlanta. Is it artistic expression? Vandalism? Criminal turf-staking? The lines between what’s acceptable and not have blurred. Neighbors embrace graffiti at the Krog Street Tunnel but organize teams to paint over tags a few blocks west at the Boulevard Tunnel. The city has employed a police officer to infiltrate graffiti circles and make arrests but welcomes artists from around the world to paint murals on facades. The annual Art on the Atlanta BeltLine exhibition has tripled in scale since its 2010 launch, showcasing some of the very artists who used to run from local cops. Those include Alex “Hense” Brewer, who went from tagging Atlanta underpasses to painting Facebook’s California offices. (His paintings can fetch $30,000.) The spiffy new Binder’s art supply store at Ponce City Market stocks an impressive array of spray paint, but a mile down the Eastside Trail, tagging at the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark resulted in calls to APD.

When the department created the graffiti-abatement officer position in 2011, the resulting arrests put a public face to taggers—with mug shots splashed across the news. APD responded to 17 complaints involving graffiti in the first quarter of this year, according to police reports. (The actual count is probably higher, since not all generate police reports.) Incidents included damage to two Little Five Points businesses, two southwest Atlanta churches, and a Reynoldstown steel supplier. Four cases had suspected gang ties.

For years Reynoldstown resident Liz Hill has mobilized neighbors to adopt and clean up “vulnerable” areas, such as retaining walls, vacant properties on the BeltLine corridor, and walls near railroad tracks. But these days, she says, “I don’t see much, honestly.”

Elan Buchen, the BeltLine’s project coordinator for art and design, says graffiti along the multiuse trails—that is, anything not commissioned—has dropped. Artwork that’s tagged gets cleaned up within 24 hours.

APD investigator Brad Etterle, who spearheaded anti-graffiti efforts for two years, says he arrested about 10 “significant” offenders during his tenure. They ranged from college kids to 40-somethings and tagged from Buckhead to Bankhead, targeting high-visibility sites along interstates and MARTA lines. “Word gets out that we make arrests,” Etterle says, “and a lot of people are deterred.” Georgia law states that property damage of more than $500 constitutes a felony, a threshold that Etterle says is easily crossed.

These days, Brewer says he understands why graffiti is frowned upon, but he objects to charging graffitists with felonies. Atlanta’s graffiti scene, he says, isn’t as “rich” as it once was because redevelopment is reducing the number of vacant buildings that can serve as canvasses. Development, he says, means “graffiti [is seen as] more of a plague.”

Vital Stats

Average cost for professional graffiti removal

of graffiti in Atlanta is suspected to be gang-related

number of “Significant” offenders arrested in the past two years

Complaints involving graffiti made to APD in the first quarter of 2015

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.