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Yeah, but is it art? Graffiti in Atlanta

11:58 PM, May 17, 2013   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- Imagine being so consumed with a creative desire for expression that you're willing to jog halfway across the city, sweating with a backpack and a can of spray paint; that you'd be willing to climb the highest walls just to get a blank 'canvas." 

"It's actually really good artwork," said one eyewitness in the West End. "And it happens so fast it takes them 45-minutes. And it's so good who wouldn't want it on their building?" 

The answer to that is simple: pretty much anybody with a building.
"Basically it just comes down to something simple," said Keith Flemming, chairman of the Graffiti Task Force. "If you tag an area that you do not have permission, that you do not own, that is vandalism." 

The city of Atlanta has been aggressive in its pursuit of taggers making arrests and cataloging signet graffiti. 

"None of it is sanctioned; none of it is approved; It's all crime at this point," said Brad Etterle, one of APD's graffiti abatement cops as he strolled along the Beltline, surveying the panoply of spray-painted images. 

The police used computer software to index thousands of tags all over the city and came up with a remarkable discovery.
"We found that basically over 65% of it was between nine guys," said Flemming. "They were doing a large majority of it. And that's why you've seen a little bit of a decrease since their arrests last year. 

The old 4th ward and the Beltline are graffiti hotspots, where many residents accept it as street-art. 

"I really love the street art," said one passerby. "It's colorful; it's gives character to the beltline. So, I love it." 

But the street-art poses a vexing dichotomy: Where does the graffiti end and the art begin? 

"I like the art," said another resident. The graffiti is a little annoying; but when you see the art it's pretty nice."
What is clear from those we spoke with is that the two should never mix. 

"People are out here with beautiful art and knuckleheads just go behind it and kill," said restaurant owner Marco Johnson. "I see that coming in the future. That should stop. Let people create their art on beautiful places and take it from there." 

Marco's Pitas has been in Midtown for nearly 20-years. The restaurant's inviting yellow walls have not been immune to tagging. 

"When I go to work I may just have to paint over it with yellow paint because a) I didn't give you permission to do it and b) who are you?"

But not everyone is so tolerant. That's because the damage can be extensive and the penalty severe. 

"Felony charges can come along a lot easier than people realize," said Officer Etterle. "Other charges that might follow are criminal trespass charges; even the city ordinance for graffiti." 

It would be easy to lump all graffiti into the colorful cauldron of visual chaos and cognitive dissonance. 

But there is art here. Sometimes it's starts out as a germ, like the seminal calligraphic tag that belonged to a youth named "Lean."
"It was more about personal summits and exploration; and it always was an adventure," said the erstwhile Lean, otherwise known these days by his real name: Brandon Sadler. 

Sadler has since evolved from tagger to muralist to artist to brand. His "rising-red-lotus" oeuvre can be seen on walls on the Beltline and Studioplex. 

"The orientation is vertical to kind of adhere more to the Chinese character style," he said demonstrating his technique. "I have three different character styles: Tiger. Mantis. And snake." 

Each style has its own flow and meaning. Having honed his skills in Korea,. the Asian influences are clear. 

Though his work lives beyond labels now, the artist has never forgotten the tagger within. 

"That art form taught me how to gage my perspective; how to look at my environment and see how the idea could be articulated onto whatever surface it was." 

Not all taggers will matriculate on the streets to evolve as a full-fledged artist. But that won't stop them from trying despite the inherent physical dangers. Not to mention arrests. 

That's why fans of the genre want to see more dedicated walls where the artists can express themselves and their craft without committing a crime. 

In the meantime, the city has help for those whose property has been vandalized by graffiti. Simply contact the Graffiti Task Force, and they will provide you with the clean-up materials you'll need to erase the paint. 

They also recommend cleaning your property within 24 hours and immediately calling the police.

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