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Target vandals, not artists

City's anti-graffiti task force should leverage local talent

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Atlanta's got a lot of problems — poor public transit, homelessness, wayward youths breaking into homes — but compared to other cities, unwanted graffiti ain't one. That's why a nascent City Hall task force that aims to buff out all graffiti sounds like the wrong program at the wrong time.

The city's venturing into uncharted territory by letting a relatively small group determine which pieces of street art should be spared — and getting rid of the rest. (Never mind that, in the process, the city will be providing a blank canvas for graf artists to make a fresh start.) The city is trying to navigate the grey area between street art and straight-up vandalism — and making judgment calls on artwork that repurposes bland, abandoned or out-of-the-way corners of Atlanta as its canvas.

It's not that tag brats who scribble drunken cursive on mailboxes and store windows — or even the top of City Hall East — aren't worthy of a crackdown. Might we propose a simple hotline or website where private property owners can report unwanted graffiti?

Instead, the city is adopting a (nearly) scrub-all approach. In addition to erasing potentially gang-related scribbles, such standout pieces as Hense's block-lettered signatures or Totem's mischievous little ghost Mr. Fangs — street art that supporters have argued improves Atlanta's cultural landscape — could become a thing of the past. Well, at least until the graf artists strike again.

As the anti-graffiti task force members compile a list of existing works deemed to be worth keeping — an innovative approach that we applaud, with some reservations — they should also think about going a step further.

Thanks to the efforts of several artists and a supportive grassroots community, Atlanta's become a breeding ground for a talent pool of graf artists that similar-sized cities would crave. Don't ghettoize it. Even more important, don't let it go to waste.

Do something unconventional. Set aside free walls and invite artists to showcase their work. Help connect graf artists with businesses, property owners and community groups who want bland, blank spaces to become an ever-changing canvas. Rather than stifle the authentic artistic expression that's blossomed under bridges and along the Beltline, embrace it. True graffiti artists, the ones who oftentimes strike gentlemen's agreements with private property owners to paint vivid, detailed murals, can be a surprisingly self-policing bunch. If a neighborhood welcomes their art, they'll most likely respect the turf and each other's pieces and provide an evolving array of visuals and commentary that adds life and color to the city.

Turn what could be a stop-gap measure with questionable effect into a strong arts movement that could earn accolades for Atlanta. Channel that talent in a way to boost the otherwise anemic public art scene in Atlanta.

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