On Aug. 20, the Monday after Living Walls' five-day all-women street art whirlwind, a reader tipped me off about a discussion taking place on the Lakewood Heights community listserv about a mural by Argentinean artist Hyuro at the corner of McDonough Boulevard and Sawtell Avenue in Southeast Atlanta. I'd heard about the mural over the weekend, and by now you probably have, too. It's the one with the naked woman. More accurately, it's the one depicting a naked woman that grows a black coat of fur and then disrobes completely as the discarded covering morphs into a wolf and walks off. There are 37 images in total.
I logged onto the community listserv to see what neighbors were saying, unsurprised that nudity had sparked a debate. The mural was located near a mosque, a church, and a day care center, after all. I expected a lot of anger, and for the negative responses to far outnumber the positive ones. Instead, a mature, constructive discussion was taking place. The listserv was acting as a forum for people to express their frustrations, yes, but also for dialogue about the art itself, what it meant, how people were interpreting it, and the fact that it was attracting outsiders down into the neighborhood that shares space with the federal penitentiary. I remarked as much in a blog post that day, and then silently reprimanded myself for assuming the worst of people.
Then came Channel 2's story on Tuesday. Reporter Tom Jones opened the segment by remarking in disbelief, "The painting shows the woman totally nekkid." It was the first domino to fall in a series of local and national news stories decrying the artwork as pornographic and choosing to sensationalize the content and the response to it.
The tone of Channel 11's Wednesday report echoed that of Channel 2. Juxtapoz erroneously reported that the mural had been removed. Huffington Post also chimed in, inaccurately noting that if the neighborhood and the city's Urban Design Commission deemed the mural inappropriate it would be painted over. Wrong.
Here's how the process works: Living Walls, a private organization awaiting its nonprofit status approval, fills out a Certification for the Installation of Public Art application for each of the murals. It must be approved by the Office of Transportation (it can't be a traffic hazard); the Urban Design Commission (it can't be a commercial advertisement); and the Office of Cultural Affairs (it has to align with the city's public art program). A community meeting is recommended but not required. According to Camille Russell Love, Director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, her office only has the power to approve applications, not rescind them. Plus, Living Walls' murals are installed on private property, where the owners have free speech rights. In this case, the city does not have domain to just roll up and buff a work if it feels like it.
When Living Walls submitted its applications about a week before the conference began, the proposal for Hyuro's wall depicted a series of chairs, not nudes. Love promptly gave it OCA's stamp of approval. An avid supporter of Living Walls, Love has bluntly called the switcheroo a "misrepresentation." Monica Campana, Living Walls' executive director, explains that Hyuro decided to rethink her approach after seeing the wall, which was much smaller than she had anticipated. According to Campana, this frequently happens with Living Walls' artists, who come from all over the world. The street art conference is often their first interaction with the city, and they look to it to inform the pieces they put up here. Had an accurate sketch been submitted beforehand, or resubmitted once Hyuro had finalized her design, perhaps this conversation would have taken place before the fact. Perhaps we would have avoided some of the hypersexualized rhetoric, shaming, and fearmongering of the female form. Or perhaps we would've gotten a bunch of chairs. (No offense to chairs.)
I'm not naïve enough to think that people won't be startled, even unsettled, by the image of a naked woman in public. Neither is Living Walls, or Hyuro for that matter. But the notion, for instance, that the mural would only exacerbate issues plaguing the neighborhood such as prostitution is false. Nudity in art does not breed prostitution, although lack of respect for and education about the female form sure can contribute to it. There is absolutely a difference between the thoughtful narrative in Hyuro's artwork that happens to include a nude form and the provocative (some might say pornographic) T&A used on billboards to hawk 12-packs.
This mural presented an opportunity to address the contradictions in contemporary conversations about women's bodies — the kinds of conversations that reduce female Olympic athletes to "hot or not," that debate the legitimacy of rape, that seek to make our decisions for us. The Lakewood Heights community was taking advantage of that opportunity, and it's a shame that the local and national media's negative spin and clumsy reporting succeeded in overshadowing a positive moment. Because now the property owners are so fed up with the "controversy" that they'd rather just have it painted over. Now there won't even be chairs in that space. Just blank, crumbling walls.