Art and Activism in Atlanta

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From Graffitis to Murals: Atlanta’s Burgeoning Street Art Scene

Art pulls a community together…Art makes you feel differently. That’s what artists are doing all the time, shifting and changing the way you see life – Lister Sinclair

Brandon P. Wicks, ROA’s graffiti at 209 Michell Stree, Atlanta 2012

Atlanta’s street art scene is a burgeoning melting pot. With enough effort, you can find street art in almost every corner of Atlanta that encompasses all cultures; from Chinese calligraphy to thought-provoking graffiti, clever and creative messages can be constantly found in the streets of downtown, midtown, Inman Park or Little Five Points. In fact, some call Atlanta’s evolving avant-garde art community a “visual art renaissance” ( Undoubtedly, however, it is the ordinary passerbys and citizens that benefit the most from these public (and free!) artworks that allow for anyone to find beauty in even the most ordinary things.


Personally, I believe street art to be one of the purest and most thoughtful forms of artistic expression that exists. It allows people to find deeper meaning in a mural on the wall of their city or to smile when they are taking a walk around Beltline of Atlanta. In the fast-paced, concrete jungle society that we live in, there is tremendous hope and possibility in people slowing down to observe their surroundings with open eyes (and open minds), stopping to observe the work laid out in front of them, and realizing that it’s for them.

There are, of course, many that consider street art to be a form of vandalism. In fact, graffiti and street art are generally described as “any form of unsanctioned art that occurs in a public or privately owned space” (Wikipedia). With this, I wonder how certain people consider street art to be a form of ‘illegal vandalism’. Why can’t it be a form of reclaiming public space for ‘unsanctioned’ art that originally belongs to the people and that continues to exemplify a form of political resistance, before it is considered illegal? And how does one draw the line between a public installation of art and vandalism? Of course, we cannot expect everyone to feel the same way and obviously, there are residents who live in these areas that may feel as if their personal space has been violated. But this has always been a point of interest (and resolution) for artists; negotiating the space between creating an artwork that is can be readily integrated with the community and at the same time, can challenge its viewers to take something from the art itself.

Living Walls 2013. Mural by Street Artist JR. Photo by Jaime Rojo
Mural by Agostino Iacurci par of the bicycle tour given for Living Walls 2013. Photo by Jaime Rojo

On the walls and storefronts, there are a lot of gallery-worth works that have been commissioned by Living Walls, which since 2010 have sought to promote, educate and change perspective about public space in Atlanta communities via street art (livingwallsatl). Elevate Atlanta initiatives and Art on the Beltline have also added some spectacular pieces to our city’s streets (CurbedAtlanta).

Mural by Bubelyoo. Photo @ Curbed Atlanta


“Where the Wild Things Are” Mural by Corey Davis and Greg Mike. Photo @ Curbed Atlanta

To experience the climate of the art scene in Atlanta first-handedly, I’ve decided to take a walk on Atlanta’s very own Beltline. The Atlanta Beltline is a 22-mile long network of public parks, trails and transit circling downtown and connecting some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods such as Ponce City Market, Piedmont Park and etc. (AtlantaBeltline). It is home to many conceptual sculptures and murals and every year, Art On The Atlanta Beltline public art initiative selects new and returning artists to showcase dynamic installations and performances (AtlantaBeltline).

Here are some photos that were taken from my trip around Beltline (please excuse my lack of skills in photography).






Author: Youjean (Ivey) Hwang




(4): AtlantaBeltline

Voices of the Artistic CommUNITY in Atlanta

Integrating their talents, character, and experience to solve the weakness in social order, artists in Atlanta have embraced the community in their inspiring creative journey. With its artists greasing its wheels, Atlanta has come a long way in creating a seamless and vibrant hub for street art, exhibitions, and art caucuses. It is home to numerous art exhibitions and events that foster community involvement and dialogue between artists and audiences. Local artists and out-of-town artists invited were heavily focused on capturing and challenging issues that are often not talked about and that are important to Atlanta specifically.

Here are brief introductions to the different subject matters of art exhibitions, installations, performances and events held in Atlanta:


For Freedom: “Yard Sign Activation” project 2016

Flux Project (current and ongoing)

The Flux Project was founded in 2009 and till today, it remains as a medium in engaging Atlanta’s public spaces with thought-proving art. It is a non-profit arts organization that aims to shape and promote Atlanta’ cultural identity. (

One Woman Rising Ceremony 2015

Art in Freedom Park

Freedom Park’s visibility made it an ideal location for public display of art work in Atlanta. In 2005, Evan Levy opened the fountainhead for sculptures and paved the way for bolder, more conceptual and more risk-taking art installations and projects for local artists to explore. Ever since then, multiple installations and art events have attracted multiple citizens around Atlanta and further connected art with the larger cultural discourse. (


Murals by George Beattle in Georgia Department of Agriculture

            Murals in Georgia Department of Agriculture

As you step in the lobby of Georgia Department of Agriculture, you will come across a painting that has been hanging in the lobby for half a century. These murals are part of a collection of eight works painted by George Beattle in 1956. It depicts “an idealized version of Georgia farming, from the corn grown by prehistoric American Indians to a 20th-century veterinary lab. In the Deep South, the history of forced use of slave labor”. In response to the controversy around the paintings, Beattle responded, “as a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period”. (Associated Press)

Human trafficking and Sexual Assault

It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity.  It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric.  It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets.  It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.  I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name -modern slavery.

– President Barack Obama in remarks to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012

“How Much” by Faith Dickey            

Human trafficking is brutal and widespread in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta is one of the largest hubs for human trafficking in the country. Mary Bowely, who runs Wellspring Living, a non-profit organization in Atlanta that helps young survivors of human trafficking explains how the numbers are bigger than what many people consider; there are about 200-300 girls that are trafficked each month in this very city and around 100 girls are exploited in metro Atlanta every night. To fight modern slavery, local Atlanta artists and artists from out-of-town gathered together in Mammal Gallery this September to engage in dialogue with the community and raise awareness of human trafficking in Atlanta. (

Charlie Watt’s “The ThrowAways” at Emory University’s Visual Arts Building Gallery (Photo by John)


Charlie Watt’s “The ThrowAways” at Emory University’s Visual Arts Building Gallery (Photo by John)


In 2013, an Emory graduate, Charlie Watts Watts held an exhibition about sex trafficking at Emory University’s Visual Art Building Gallery. Titled, “The ThrowAways” Watts involved a photographic genre of pictorialism with glowing, digitally produced color images in her creative efforts to create art that would “neither drive away potential viewers nor blunt the impact of the unpleasant facts embodied in the subject” (@artsatl). Her exhibition, in a review by Jerry Cullum credited the exhibition to have “exactly the right mixture of cold realism and metaphoric evocation” that placed the viewer in a climate appropriate to understand the oppressive, tense and brutal aspects of human trafficking (Jerry Cullum).

Author: Youjean (Ivey) Hwang



(3): Associated Press, accessed through



History of Art and Activism in Atlanta


It’s difficult to imagine Atlanta’s art scene thriving without African Americans who grease its wheels. From slam poetry to art installations on the Beltline, African American artists have long reflected not only their individual opinions and experiences but also their historical and cultural ties with the past. For us, Emory students, we tend to take diversity and inclusion for granted, and we are often oblivious to the hidden racist history of Atlanta. Particularly for Atlanta, art has been influential in dismantling the strength of racism and has aided generations of African American artists in their collective and progressive efforts to integrate all citizens, black and white, to promote the equality and diversity that we enjoy today.

Until the 1950s, arts and culture were adversely affected by the restrictive nature of legalized segregation. Even till 1959, African-American musicians could play to white audiences, but could not intermingle at intermission (Tate, 2012). In the very worst days of Atlanta’s ugly past, Carlton Molette, Neighborhood Arts Center’s first chairman of the board recalls, “Georgia Tech used to invite us to their dress rehearsals because it was illegal for them to sell us tickets” (Tate, 2012). The weed of Jim Crow policies had not been completely laced till the end of the 1960s and it was suffocating the arts of African Americans.

Slowly and gradually, however, the art climate in Atlanta was moving towards integration. With the King Center established in 1968 and Atlanta Center for Black Arts in 1971, Black Arts Movement flourished in the late 1960s and marked the transitional era for African American artists in Atlanta. By 1970s, there were deteriorating section of downtown Atlanta as segregation had given way to integration, suburbanization and the abandonment of many social support structures innate to a system of racial separation (Tate, 2012). After the national Black Power Movement that was prominent till the late 1970s, in 1970s and 1980s, Atlanta became a reflection of a national black art scene. There were, of course, many white American that were interested in the advancement of all the arts, regardless of the artist’s race. Lomax, who was once an Emory professor in his dissertation explains how Atlanta was, “one of the few spaces where blacks and whites came together because artists were always marginalized” (1986).

As Franz Fanon states, “revolutionary art is both a product of struggle and a reflection of it”, Atlanta’s history is filled with stories of prominent African American artists and their journey of growth, acceptance, innovation, and hope. It is through their collective efforts, that current African-American artists and artists of every color can enjoy the liberty of art and readily combat the urban blight of society.

Author: Youjean (Ivey) Hwang

(1): Tate, Rachanice P. “Our Art Itself Was Our Activism: Atlanta’s Neighborhood Arts Center, 1975-1990.” PhD diss., Clark Atlanta University, 2012.

(2): Lomax, Michael L. “Countee Cullen, ‘From the Dark Tower’.” PhD diss., Emory University, 1984.

Reframing refugees in a changed political climate

On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. Mr. Trump has expressed mistrust of refugees, particularly those of Syrian descent, saying things like “We cannot let them into this country, period. Our country has tremendous problems. We can’t have another problem.”(1) His election has spurred panic and fear in refugee communities across the United States. One Syrian refugee named Mohammed said in an interview with National Public Radio, “Everyone is terrified, they are scared, they are shocked…You brought them here because they are refugees, they don’t have homes anymore…Send them back where? To hell?”(2)

The Global Growers Network is a largely refugee centric organization. Even before the election the goal of Ross Oscar Knight and this team of Emory students was to create a photography project that challenged existing perceptions of the refugee community. However, after November 8, they said that the importance of their project was amplified.

“This doesn’t change our goal and I don’t believe that all of those who support Trump have such a strong negative perception of refugees. But, I feel more strongly than ever that we must challenge stereotypes of whose land it is, who gets opportunities, and who are refugees. I am not going to change the art I want to produce for Global Growers, but I am more sensitive and passionate about this work that ever before,” said Knight.

In a group conversation with the Emory students working with Global Growers, perspectives on the role that their photography project plays in the broader political climate varied. However, the group did agree on a few overarching points. They all believed that a major driver of social and political mistrust of refugee populations is that there is a singular dominant image of a refugee as someone who originates from the middle east, practices Islam, and could potentially be a terrorist threat. This is not an accurate image of the American refugee community and the group did recognize that the photography series of Global Growers could serve as a counter-narrative to challenge current perceptions of refugees.

Sarah Loftus said “Art is a beautiful and important piece of social change. It is a declaration of expression that impacts people’s minds and ways of thinking, and in the least exposes people to issues that are otherwise ignored. Mere exposure can be an important factor in the art of persuasion and activism is no different.”

The Global Growers group and Ross Oscar Knight felt that the significance of their work has been heightened and that it can serve to challenge the pervasive, false and damaging image of the American refugee community. Hopefully, inspiring the broader American audience to develop a stronger sense of empathy towards this marginalized community and actively work to improve refugee quality of life in Atlanta, Georgia, and the greater United States.

Author: Aspen Ono

(1):Kopan, Tal. “Donald Trump: Syrian Refugees a ‘Trojan Horse'” CNN. Cable News Network, 16 Nov. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

(2)Amos, Deborah. “For Refugees And Advocates, An Anxious Wait For Clarity On Trump’s Policy.” NPR. NPR, 15 Nov. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Global Growers Art in Action: Cultivating new perspectives of the Refugee community

Global Growers is a non-profit Atlanta based organization that started in 2010 whose mission statement is “to create opportunities in sustainable agriculture in Georgia, by growing good food, training farmers, and providing economic opportunity.” They focus on providing agricultural opportunities to refugees and other economically marginalized populations. Global Growers provides agricultural education and almost 20 acres of arable land to their farming families. The produce on these farms is subsequently sold to local restaurants, at local farmer’s markets, or distributed within the Global Growers community to families, who may rely on this produce as a food source. The Global Growers Executive Director, Robin Chanin, explained “We like to say that our farmers are global, but the food is local.”

“I want to create a series of images that captures the heart of the Global Growers Network,” said photographer, Ross Oscar Knight. “Captivating images can make you click and read more about a certain organization. And I think that if we can create striking images and taglines for Global Growers, people are more likely to engage and support the organization.

I want to use my photographs of Global Growers to reframe the popular images of refugees. I want to challenge people’s perceptions of who refugees are, what refugee families are like, where they are from, their impact on the local economy, and what they grow. I want to change the popular perception of a refugee in a positive way and I believe that I and the Emory students working with me, can do this through photography.”

Gabriel Andrle, one of the Emory Students working with Knight, said “What I love about Global Growers is it brings people from across the world together and they share a space to grow not only plants, but also a community. I find beauty in the simplicity of this concept and the incredible stories that lie beneath the surface of every individual. I hope that our images capture the uniqueness of the individuals, cultures, and families.”

Other students expressed similar reflections on the Global Growers network and their goals for the final art installment. They all expressed a desire to highlight the “rich histories and backgrounds” of the refugee farmers, thereby illustrating the humanity that those farmers share with the general American population. One student summarized by saying “Once people get past surface level differences and recognize and relate to the humanity that they share with those different than them, like these refugee farmers, then they can more easily empathize with that community. And empathy can drive action.”

Sarah Loftus put it eloquently saying “American culture at its core a beautiful amalgamation of many cultures from around the world and we need more organizations and people who not only celebrate this, but act as pillars of support for people, who have come here seeking better futures. They are not simply an abstract subject of controversy in which we are separated from by an ocean anymore, they are Americans, living with us in the same working whole. They should be thought of as untapped forces of fresh cultural perspectives and ethnic diversity, and through these photos we hope to show that. Through these photos people will be able to see the faces of the people that Global Growers help, and this will help to spread the cause.”

Author: Aspen Ono

What is Art Activism: Perspective of the Student Global Growers group

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings,” and activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Yet, the conception of art activism, art in action, or art as a mechanism for social change is much more fluid.

What is art activism? And what does this term mean to a diverse group of individuals creating activist art? The eight students working with Ross Knight to produce a series of photographs for the community refugee farming initiative, Global Growers, had many different perspectives on art, activism, and the mobilization of social action through art.

Rebecca Upton said “Art is made to make a statement. Whether that be a statement on social justice or just a statement on what is beautiful is up to both the viewer and the creator. It is fluid.” This understanding of art was shared by most members of the Global Growers Project. They argued that art is a flexible expression of emotion that encourages people to view the world in a new light. After speaking to Knight and the Emory Global Gowers team, I concluded that to them, in many ways, all art is activist art. Art gives people an alternative picture of reality and of the truth; thereby, making people question the world around them.

But, if art is inherently a medium for change, what makes art activism or protest art unique? Knight argued that “Art activism is a means of getting a community engaged and involved through dynamic imagery.” Does that mean that communal action transforms advocacy art into activist art, or is all art activist art?

The answer to this question was contended among various Emory students. While some, like Sarah Loftus argued that “Art activism is art that incites and inspires people to support progression. It doesn’t even have to incite direct action, even a change in the viewers’ mindset is a good step forward in any activism.” Others argued that art activism implies action and the use of art as an instrument to evoke active change.

Regardless of the art activism definition individual students assumed, there was a collective agreement that art is an aspect of human existence that is inseparable from our religious, political, and social lives. It is expressed in a multitude of ways and influences how we see ourselves, our communities, and those different from us. Art actively influences our worldview and exposure to new art can transform our perceptions of the world. In this way, art acts as a mechanism for change by conveying new and alternative understandings of humanity.

Author: Aspen Ono