Street art has evolved from illicit graffiti tags on New York City subways to intricate murals that businesses now pay to have painted on their walls. Across the country, neighborhoods throughout cities like Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Austin are beaming with visual goodies that demand the attention of busy pedestrians who spend arguably too much time staring down at their smartphones. But while some might view these artistic treats as beautifying and revitalizing neighborhoods, for communities whose walls are being turned into canvases, oftentimes without their input, it’s the first sign of gentrification, a process that can make them feel like strangers in their own ‘hoods, or worse, force them out of their homes. In Atlanta, a city blooming in street art, Living Walls is a nonprofit organization ensuring that the people’s voices aren’t lost in public art projects.
Founded in 2010 by Monica Campana and Blacki Migliozzi, Living Walls facilitates the creation of intentional, thought-provoking public art that activates communities and prompts social change. The organization seeks local, predominantly, as well as national and international artists of diverse backgrounds and connects them with community members, who influence the themes and approach to the public pieces. Through their annual Living Walls Conference — a festival-like event that invites artists to create pre-planned murals, sparks conversations between creatives and art scholars, hosts art tours and screens films — as well as commissioned special projects for leading businesses and organizations, Living Walls pays artists to enliven Atlanta’s buildings and structures.
“Me and my team believe art is an agent for change with the ability to unify or bring communities together and have a message, and so we try to engage in projects that will have some sort of social change aspect, so everything we do in our community-based projects have intentions that are specific to the place we are working in. It’s art, yes, but art highlighting a community, culture, issue or protest,” Campana, the executive director of Living Walls, told FIERCE.
(Art: Kristin Ferro | Photo: Courtesy of Living Walls)
Campana, a Peru native, accomplishes this by organizing various conversations, through town hall meetings and neighborhood association meetings, between residents and prospective artists whose identities, experiences and/or values match those of the community they will be working in. Through these discussions, which last for a minimum of a year, though smaller, commissioned work may only take up to about three months worth of negotiating, communities and artists work together to develop a shared vision and solve problems.
In 2017, for instance, Campana took the conference to Buford Highway, Atlanta’s most diverse immigrant community, where she brought together local and out-of-state artists who are immigrants or children of immigrants to engage and build with the largely foreign-born Latinx and Asian inhabitants of the area to design murals that they are excited about.
One artist, a local Vietnamese-American printmaker named Dianna Settles, spent time at Athena’s Warehouse at Cross Keys High School, a nonprofit that educates and empowers underserved teen girls, where she engaged with immigrant and first-generation girls of color about the issues they were dealing with, particularly immigration, violence, invisibility and responsibility. The conversations led to a stunning floral mural of two women, one brown and one Asian, representing beauty and resilience.
(Art: Dianna Settles Photo Credit: Dyana Bagby)
“We believe in artists, the artists we work with, and if they have an idea, and it’s intentional, then we want to support it,” Campana, 36, said.
For the curator, art is a tool for social change, especially when it comes to widening representation. By giving people of marginalized backgrounds a paintbrush, and allowing them to express themselves publicly, Campana believes we open society and culture up to different perspectives, and that these new references can radically improve or validate the lives of other community members who have also long felt invisible.
“Art can be a tool for social change by just giving people a platform to express themselves and create projects in an inclusive way and giving the mic to people who don’t usually get to have it. Aside from that, if it’s not a representation thing, I do think art is a tool that lets you see hope or experience things you never thought of. It’s a door that gets to someone that no other tool can,” she said.
That’s exactly the role art played for Campana when she and her family moved from Lima, Peru to Orlando, Fla. as a teenager. Forced to attend a new high school in an unfamiliar country, she couldn’t relate to the culture, the language or the customs, and as a 15-year-old, an age that already brings an onslaught of identity issues regardless of one’s zip code, Campana was miserable.
(Art: Martha Cooper | Photo: Courtesy of Living Walls)
“When you come to the US from a completely different country, the easiest thing you can do is blend and assimilate, because it’s scary not to belong, especially at that age. I did not know what depression was until I moved to the US, and I experienced that at 15,” she said.
She eventually found a panacea in art. Failing most of her classes, art was the only subject the young Campana excelled in. A long-time drawer, her hobby took new meaning when her teacher, who saw how distressed Campana was, introduced her to Frida Kahlo. Learning about a woman who, like her, rebelled against social standards of womanhood and experienced immense grief, and who employed art to reconcile her feelings and express herself, allowed her to similarly use art as an outlet.
“I don’t think I would be as stable, emotionally and mentally, as I am if it weren’t for me finding a tool that would let me feel a pride in my abilities, in myself, in where I come from,” she continued, noting that the works of Latin American and marginalized artists allowed her to unlearn much of the negative messages she had received about her own Peruvian culture and status as an immigrant.
It wasn’t until a decade later, however, when she co-founded Living Walls, that she started to finally feel like she found her place in the US. She was 25 and recently relocated to Atlanta, where she dropped out of art school for the second time and left a long-term, toxic relationship. She was unhappy and picked up an extra job at a coffee shop to distract her from her pain. There, she met another artist who was disgruntled with the scene, and together they started making street art. It wasn’t great, she says, but it was exhilarating. So much that Campana sold her car in an effort to explore the city she was painting through biking. Seeing Atlanta through the lens that a city planner might, Campana grew excited about all the possibilities in Atlanta but wanted a grassroots response to the corporate “beautification” projects that were beginning to pop up in the city.
(Art: Kristin Ferro | Photo: Courtesy of Living Walls)
“I wanted to build a healthier and welcoming city,” she said, describing her earliest hopes for Living Walls. “In all honesty, it was a selfish reaction to wanting to feel like I belonged and I was at home.”
Since starting the organization almost 10 years ago, Campana and her team, which now comprises of three full-time staff and three contractors, has helped facilitate about 150 public art projects throughout Atlanta. Her DIY initiate has grown into a business that earns revenue through collaborations with big brands like Google and Mailchimp and pays all the artists it works with.
Looking excitedly toward the future — she’s currently working out the details for having an Iranian artist paint a mural at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s security checkpoint — while recalling all she has already been able to accomplish, Campana is pretty incredulous about Living Walls’ success.
“Maybe it’s because it’s so different, because it’s a lot of girls, because it’s a Peruvian girl from the south. But people see how special Living Walls is. I know how special it is,” she said.