A lot has changed in the three years since Mónica Campana and Blacki Migliozzi founded Living Walls. At the time, the local conversation about street art more or less revolved around the same tired debate of graffiti's merits. Graffiti equals vandalism: Check yes or no.
The verbal (and sometimes physical) tug-of-war said loads about Atlantans' tenuous relationship with their city's physical spaces. It's hard to develop a connection to a place when you're always cutting through its heart at 70 mph. When it launched in 2010, Living Walls set out to achieve two main things: school Atlanta on the international world of street art and offer a grassroots alternative to the exclusive (and relatively expensive) CNU 18 conference on New Urbanism. Year one of Living Walls was part of a fresh nationwide wave of tactical urbanism, a buzz term referring to the trend in events and projects designed as quick, small-scale interventions to reimagine urban spaces. Think reclaim-the-roadways festival Atlanta Streets Alive and pop-up public artwork program Flux Projects. Living Walls spent just a few days transforming dozens of walls that first year, but it also helped people see Atlanta's neighborhoods in new ways, and, in many cases, really see some of them for the first time.
"Street art, right now, is cool. And it has been happening for the last two or three years," Campana says. "When we started Living Walls and the CNU was happening here, Ross Wallace, who's helping us plan this year's lectures, was part of this new group called the Next Generation of New Urbanists. At that time, they started talking about tactical urbanism, and Mike Lydon, who will be coming here, starts putting together the tactical urbanism manual. Art and urbanism, city planning, and architecture, they are all related. But I think in the past three years, people have become more creative or artists are more willing to work with this and are more approachable, and all of a sudden public art is cool."
Although the terms tactical urbanism and Living Walls imply transience, the goal is to create permanent shifts in perspective. Migliozzi has since moved on, but Campana and her growing team of volunteers persist, taking the steps to turn Living Walls into a sustainable, permanent organization. Since its inception, Living Walls has grown its staff from two to 21, expanded its mission to include year-round programming through Living Walls Concepts, been honored with an Atlanta Urban Design and Commission Award, and is awaiting approval of its 501c3 nonprofit status. For this year's event, taking place Aug. 15-19, Living Walls will host the world's first all-female street art conference.
"This is taking a risk with something that's already a success," says Nathan Bolster, executive director of operations.
To be clear, dudes are welcome, and will be present at this year's event. There will be celebration of walls covered by Trek Matthews, Neuzz, La Pandilla, and Interesni Kazki over the past few months as part of Living Walls Concepts. Vandalog's RJ Rushmore will host lectures and film screenings. Tactical urbanism guru Lydon will be the keynote speaker for a talk on "Visualizing and Remodeling Urban Environments." But when it comes to the art, it's going to be a ladies-only affair.
"I think a lot of artists were disappointed when they heard that it was going to be all girls this year," Bolster says.
"Yeah, some of the guys have been like, 'I'll put on a wig!'" says communications director Alex Parrish.
Thirty artists and groups are scheduled to participate this year, down from 35 in 2011. In part the lower number is an effort by Campana to score the women their own walls, a rarity at street art events.
"I think that when girls get the chance to go into other festivals like this, they get a small wall or they are collaborating with someone else," Campana says. "I think it's time for everyone to get their own thing."
Artists from cities as far-flung as Zurich (Tika), Melbourne (Miso), and São Paulo (Fefe) will join others from nearby cities such as Memphis (Molly Rose Freeman) and a large group of Atlantans, including the Paper Twins, Olive47, Nikita Gale, Sarah Emerson, Plastic Aztecs, Knitterati, Karen Tauches, Sheila Pree Bright, Marcy Starz, Patricia Lacrete, and Mon Ellis.
Some of the artists involved, particularly many local artists, aren't technically street artists. But if street artists can bring their work into a gallery setting why can't it go the other way, too? A few such as Pree Bright and Emerson, who has mural experience, will get walls, while others such as Gale, the Plastic Aztecs, the Knitterati, Lacrete, and Mon Ellis will create an installation inside an abandoned Reynoldstown house. Legendary New York graffiti photographer Martha Cooper will be projecting work during the Edgewood Block Party and included in an exhibit at a West End warehouse showcasing works by the participating artists.
Hosting an all-female festival seems like a natural progression for Campana, whose role as Living Walls' strong-willed matriarch has been as much about wrangling the hordes as it has been about helming a rapidly expanding public art organization. But her evolution as a leader over the past few years has meant learning how to be a manager, how to delegate and step back from some of the ground-level responsibilities. It's made her feel slightly saner, albeit somewhat removed from the action.
"I feel like the first year was the grimiest year, I was the dirtiest that first year because I did everything that year. I was pressure washing floors, taking out trash ..." she says. "The second year, not so much. The second year I was mostly on my phone and laptop. I feel like, little by little, I'm having to detach myself from those things. I still have to do them, just not as much as I used to before. And that sucks cause those are the fun things."
But learning from past mistakes and making some fundamental changes are necessary for the organization to achieve the kind of future Campana envisions.
"The closest thing to something like what we want would be the Philadelphia mural project [City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program]. Artists have residency for a year and a conference at the end. I do want for the conference to become something big, something like the CNU," she says. "I want people to want to come to Atlanta to see murals or go to workshops. I want people to come here and rent their own spaces and showcase artists like at [high-profile Miami art fair Art] Basel. Hopefully, in the next five years, it's like Living Walls week."
As Living Walls has raised its profile over the last three years, the public and local businesses have generally responded with enthusiasm and support. While some neighborhoods expressed an initial hesitancy to participate that first year, 2011 saw a number of murals go up in Decatur. This year, the W Midtown has turned out to be a major ally, housing the artists, commissioning a mural by Freeman, and hosting Friday night's artist party featuring gloATL and Pablo Gnecco. Possible Futures, local arts patron Louis Corrigan's formal granting organization, awarded Living Walls a $10,000 matching grant (which it met) as a show of support and to challenge others in the community to contribute.
The help is welcome, but Campana's careful about whom she partners with and how those partnerships are presented. If a property owner tries to dictate the look of a mural, Campana stands her ground, ready to give up the wall if necessary. The same goes for sponsorships. She hates the idea of corporate logos plastered everywhere.
"So where's it going? I don't know. But I know for a fact that I don't want to have Coca-Cola all over it," Campana says. "And I know for a fact that I don't want the city telling me what I can and cannot do. But I want each individual neighborhood or community to be content with what we are doing. We talk about Living Walls being this big dialogue, and trying to get to everyone because it's for everyone. We are trying to work with the communities because Living Walls is for the community."