Canvas the City

Street artists take to metro walls

April 24, 2015

“I guess I was kind of prepared for it in a way, but it was still unexpected when it happened,” sophomore Alex Dreher said.

Although people warned him to be cautious, Dreher didn’t anticipate being arrested for doing something he loved.

“I was just chilling in the square and all these cops just rolled up on me, asking about all this stuff,” Dreher said. “When they found me, I had a full pack of the Priority Mail Stickers that I had just got and was drawing on so that I could put them up somewhere. They took that, and my markers and pens and some other stuff.”

The police arrested Dreher for graffiti. For the past four years, he has created graffiti and street art under the moniker “Ghost.”

Dreher fell in love with paint cans and air brushes when his dad exposed him to a documentary, “Exit Through The Giftshop,” about street art. This movie “lit the fuse in [his] head.”

Andrew Jackson, who works under the alias “Ate.Bit,” credits his mosaic street art to the same film.

“‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is pretty much the Bible for street artists,” he said. “That movie just really made me want to start doing the art I do now.”

Although he cites the movie as his official inspiration, Jackson had an artistic nature before he found his outlet.

“I’ve been doing this for a few years, but I think I can honestly speak for everyone in the street art scene when I say we’re artistic before we become street artists — hell, I’ve been a writer, musician, [and] done body art,” he said. “You have to be a bit banged in the head — in a good way, of course — to be a street artist.”

Dreher considered himself an artist long before he went public, too.

“I was an artist from day one,” he said. “I mean, my parents have pictures of me from when I was a baby using watercolors and stuff. I’ve done art for, like, always.”

Dreher’s love for art led him to throw the art from his imagination onto sketchbooks, stickers and walls.

“I was constantly thinking about art all the time,” Dreher said, “so, I thought, you know, why the hell shouldn’t I put it out there for the world to see?”

Dreher started by drawing on and cutting out Priority Mail stickers from the Post Office. He pasted the stickers on the sides of buildings, around lampposts  — “any surface [he] could find.”

After two years of doodling on stickers, Dreher expanded the scope of his work to include canvassing walls with paintings and murals, working alongside Spanish and French artists around the city through the Living Walls Project.

Living Walls’ mission is to allow artists from all over the world to paint murals in communities to promote, educate and change perspectives about street art. Over 100 murals in different parts of Atlanta, including the walls of restaurants and stores in the Decatur Square, are credited to this group.

Armed with cans of spray paint and a determination to show his work to the world, Dreher teamed up with Living Walls and took to painting the local walls. This, he said, is when he really began to emerge as a street artist.

“Painting the murals really helped me find myself,” he said. “I think the first mural I did kind of showed me just how much I can actually do, and how many people can see my stuff. It made me want to throw myself into my work a thousand times more.”

Dreher also creates art in the Krog Street Tunnel of Inman Park and Cabbagetown, a hub for street artists, like Jackson and Dreher, to display their work.

Jackson believes the tunnel is “one of the few places where it’s loud and clear that we’re allowed to express ourselves freely and without any trouble.”

Brad Etterle, the Graffiti Abatement Officer for the Atlanta Police Department, thinks that the tunnel is a “unique situation” because it’s owned by the private railroad company CSX rather than the city government. He said it’s one of the few private properties in Atlanta that allows artists to cover their walls without permission.

The tunnel is just one example of the effort to transform the concrete walls of Atlanta into pieces of art.

The Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA) has founded programs like the Boulevard Tunnel Initiative, which invites artists to paint murals on certain walls and tunnels throughout Atlanta.

Bryan Brunson, president of the CNIA, believes that the murals have not only beautified the city, but have also reduced the amount of illegal graffiti.

“Instead of the walls being a canvas for people to do whatever they want, whenever they want, without any organization, the murals have made people respect the art and walls a lot more,” Brunson said.

Between 2008 and 2009, he said, the “teenage tagging” rates were at “the highest point they had been since [he] first started working with the city.” The CNIA decided to tackle the illegal graffiti issue by founding the mural projects.

Brunson said that the CNIA’s efforts have not gone to waste.

“We’ve got art on these walls that people who aren’t used to seeing anything like it — you know, average people — appreciate,” he said. “They appreciate what they’re doing, and they like the way it looks.”

Although groups like the CNIA provide a place to legally create art, illegal vandalism still exists in other parts of Atlanta. That’s where Etterle comes in.

“I’m the guy that gets involved when people do illegal vandalism or graffiti,” he said. “Although there are places like the Krog Street Tunnel, where people can do whatever they want, people still vandalize public property all over Atlanta.”

Over 90 percent of the vandalism Etterle deals with is graffiti where “guys [are] just spraying their nickname all over the place, trying to get themselves known.”

Graffiti artists who tag their name are often called “taggers,” “writers” or “scratchers,” according to Jackson. He feels these artists give street art a “bad reputation.”

“People who pass by see me doing stuff that businesses have asked me to do, and they think I’m bad, but they don’t realize that we are people,” he said. “Like, I’m a physical therapist, and I do this on the side. I’m not a bad guy.”

Dreher thinks that many people who dislike street art are misinformed. He believes that “a lot of people hate on this stuff without really knowing it.”

“When I was arrested, the cops were like, well, everyone sees this street art, and they think gangs are gonna come or whatever,” he said. “They’re wrong, though. Street artists aren’t always gonna tag their names or anything – they’re making real art. They’re making the community beautiful. People just don’t see past the bad parts.”

Etterle, however, disagrees. As a police officer, he understands that not all street art is gang-related. For him, the real problem lies in the resources that vandalism wastes.

“When people vandalize or deface property, the city has to take time and money to clean it up,” he said. “That’s time and money you could spend doing other things that are really helpful and important.”

Despite a decrease in vandalism since the graffiti task force was formed in 2011, Etterle still thinks that people are often prejudiced against street artists.

“I’ve seen other patrol officers stop street artists on the street, and I’ve gotten complaints about artists, even if what they’re doing is totally legal,” he said. “A lot of people try to criticize street artists just because of the stigma about them.”

Jackson believes that the stigma about street artists would disappear if “people just went out into the city, opened their eyes, and just allowed themselves to actually discover this kind of stuff.”

“Scribbling on walls and stuff has been around literally since the caveman days,” he said. “It’s such a great way to give your artistic expression to tens of thousands of people, and it gives cities identities.”

Dreher agrees and believes that artists should be allowed to create their work without judgement.

“We are born and bred to paint things. Sometimes they just gotta let art be art,” Dreher said. “You can’t let someone not express themselves. Well-known street artists and not-well-known street artists are just getting their jobs done. It’s what we do – everyone’s got their message. Everyone’s art is important.”

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