Public Art and Community: What can we learn from the Krog Tunnel controversy?

While some art is available to all, we need to consider those who live with it 365 days a year.
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The Krog Tunnel, October 24, 2014.

Photograph by Rebecca Burns

On Saturday, a party was held in the Krog Tunnel, the CSX underpass that famously serves as a canvas for street art. But something was missing: the art. On Wednesday night, the underpass had been painted over by the tunnel’s neighbors and some of the artists whose work had covered its walls.

At first blush, the whole thing seems like the essential first-world problem. On one side: folks willing to pony up $100 for V.I.P admission to a “sultry underground” masked ball. Representing the opposition: residents of gentrifying neighborhoods perplexed that their objections to the party had been overruled by the City of Atlanta’s permitting office. Caught up in the mix: street artists, who complained about public work being co-opted for a private event (never mind that their designs and tags decorate privately owned structures all over town).

But, on closer reflection, the turf battle over the tunnel raises a larger, and more serious question: What is the relationship between “public” art and the communities where it is installed? Street art, by its very definition, is intended for everyone to enjoy—for free. But while some merely experience the art in passing, others live with it year-round, often literally in their backyards.

I’m no unbiased observer of the Krog contretemps. I live in Cabbagetown, which like adjoining Reynoldstown,  relies on the tunnel as a connection to the rest of the city. Like most of my neighbors, I delight in the paintings and designs that appear along the retaining walls, bridges, and underpasses of our community. While I gripe about the tourists who flock in from the suburbs every weekend to pose inside the Krog Tunnel or in front of murals on Wylie Street, I understand the appeal of the vibrant, gritty backdrops.

The pedestrian passage through the tunnel was designated a "VIP entrance" during the party; residents were not allowed to walk through.
The pedestrian passage through the tunnel was designated a “VIP entrance” during the party; residents were not allowed to walk or cycle through.

Our Neighborhood Planning Unit objected to the party on logistical grounds; tying up a key artery inconveniences hundreds of households. The Krog Masquerade organizers—Sean O’Keefe Events and the Atlanta Foundation for Public Spaces—were able to circumvent the community’s objections and get a permit directly from the city. This is a troubling precedent; neighborhoods across the city could find themselves up against road closures and big crowds, with no say into what takes place on their own blocks.

One more question concerned the community: who would benefit from ticket sales? Promoters stressed that some proceeds would go to Georgia Lawyers for the Arts and the Georgia Foundation for Public Spaces. Randall Fox, co-founder of AFFPS, is on the board of the former nonprofit, while the principal officer of the latter, Patrick Dennis, also is executive director of AFFPS. In other words, it appeared that the party was benefiting the organizers’ own organizations.

Finally, and most significantly, is the objection raised by the artists themselves: why should public art be used as part of a private event? One of the early proponents of “buffing” the tunnel was the artist known as Catlanta, who combines “traditional” graffiti with interactive scavenger hunts, stashing “art kitten” sculptures around the city and posting clues on social media.

Atlanta’s emerging public art scene is exciting—murals and installations enliven our city and make it more engaging, and yes, they draw outsiders to parts of town that might otherwise be overlooked. Sometimes that attention is welcome—like the University Avenue Corridor Public Art Project, a months-long collaboration between neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta and the WonderRoot arts organization, or the Boulevard Tunnel Initiative, which combined community efforts to improve security in a blighted underpass with a Living Walls mural project. Most of the time, the attention is tolerated, as those of us who live in areas known for street art can attest.

But there have been times when artists and their supporters have not been sensitive to the communities where works are installed. Back in 2012, residents of Pittsburgh attempted to paint over a Living Walls mural, asserting that the subject—a hybrid human/reptile—made some uncomfortable and evoked demonic imagery. The design, they said, had not been reviewed with the community. A few months earlier, a Chosewood Park Living Walls mural that depicted a naked woman (not the design originally approved) prompted controversy. It ultimately was painted over.

At the time of those controversies, many in the arts community decried the neighborhoods’ reactions. I suspect that there’s some overlap between street art advocates who protested what happened in Pittsburgh and Chosewood Park, and those who applauded artists and residents of Cabbagetown and Reynoldstown for “taking a stand” and whitewashing the Krog Tunnel. But the core objections in all three cases are similar—outsiders came in with ideas that had not been vetted by the community.

Public art is intended to be free for all to enjoy—but some of us live with it 365 days a year. The mural in Chosewood Park was near a mosque, hardly the ideal spot to display nudes. Better planning for the location, and communication with the community would have mitigated the controversy. Living Walls now works more closely with neighborhoods, as demonstrated with its 2013 collaboration with residents of Summerhill on a series of murals on vacant properties near Turner Field. Residents of southwest Atlanta were actively involved with WonderRoot in planning the University Corridor installation.

With better communication, more respect for the concerns of residents, and efforts to make the event inclusive rather than exclusive, the organizers of Krog Masquerade could have created an interesting and enduring event. But, even with all the publicity that followed the tunnel buffing, the organizers reportedly sold only half of their 2,000 tickets.

On Saturday night, at around 9:30, my husband and I walked back to Cabbagetown from an event in Old Fourth Ward. When we reached the tunnel, we saw people milling around with the lackluster spirit of middle-schoolers at a mixer. The westside walkway through the tunnel was completely empty. We asked one of the cops positioned in front of the tunnel entrance if we could cut through to get home, since no partygoers were there. “No, that’s the VIP entrance,” he said.

So we headed up DeKalb Avenue and reached the stairwell to the Boulevard Tunnel, which, despite cleanup efforts and a new security camera, still doubles as a latrine. “If people wanted an edgy urban experience, they should have come here,” my husband said.

And in that spirit, I offer this suggestion to AFFPS: Why not stage your next event in this still unheralded tunnel? Why not devise a way to benefit efforts to improve security in this underpass, or to support the good work being done for the community through Year of Boulevard? Why not welcome a crowd? You might create something that evolves organically—just as street art does.

After last week’s painting of the tunnel, few people recalled that the Krog Tunnel is frequently “buffed.” Its concrete canvas was wiped clean as recently as mid 2013. Most of the “iconic” artwork painted over last week was less than a year old. When I walked past the tunnel on my way home from yoga class this morning, most of the tunnel walls already had been covered with new designs and tags, including this message: “Welcome Back Y’all!”

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