Walls born at the world's first all-female street art fest -- including one now slated to die

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New York-New Jersey street artist LNY recently attended the world's first all-female street art festival. He reports on the highs and lows of Living Walls for the Guardian

Atlanta's Living Walls street art conference celebrated its third year of mural-making August 15-19, changing the landscape of a city where most movement is done by car at 60 miles per hour. Having established itself as one of the best gatherings of street arts out there, the festival celebrated its third year by hosting a historic first: an all-female cast of artists.

I, a dude, was invited to the conference as a guess speaker, so consider the following account slightly influenced by me being super-stoked about all the work going up around me.

But trust me, this was big. Living Walls' executive director Monica Campana and communications director Alex Parrish's curatorial direction took on the notion of street art as yet another high-walled boys club. Their team created a temporary space of mural-making, lectures, film screenings, and more that -- compared with the bro-heavy character of the rest of the street art world -- highlighted how gendered the whole game really is. Community, identity, agency, the female body, and issues of public space all came up during the conference – and we certainly didn't avoid heated reactions from ATL's citizenry, as controversy spewed from the city's nightly news machine.

The walls that went up around Atlanta last week are definitely different. The work was fresh and daring, a step outside the standard street art box (literally -- art spilled from some of the walls onto surrounding sidewalks.) The festival took over an abandoned house, artists covering its exterior and interior walls. 

Half of the year's artists had never done public art before, but the incredible works that the city was left with by the end of the conference revealed the curatorial talent of the Living Walls team – the experiment was a success.

While at the festival, I sat down with Campana and Parish to talk direction. Was Living Walls going to continue to be all-female in the future? Campana thinks not. “I think that there should be [a yearly all-female street art conference], but not Living Walls. Maybe as an extension of it... but you are limited by how many girls do graffiti, [and do] art that is not just trying to imitate what the boys are doing.”

“This has been such a huge learning experience for me and it is true that females work with space differently,” she said. “It is a different sensitivity.”

On Sunday night, we sat outside that art house as the neighbors served up roasted pig. Melbourne-based artist Miso walked up and weighed in what she'd seen so far that week. “The work of most of these artists could pass as male. For example, Fefe [Talavera] could be a dude.”

Campana chimed in. “Or Tika -- Juxtapoz wrote an article on her saying she was a guy.”

Campana was unafraid that creating an all-female festival would tokenize the artists. “How many little girls will be so inspired by seeing all these women painting? We shouldn't be too scared of classifying ourselves because...” She trails off, tired of theorizing after a hectic week. “I don't give a shit, I really don't care.” She was over it, and really, the walls spoke for themselves.

It wasn't just the XX choromosone-heavy nature of Living Walls that set it apart from other street art festivals. Take, for example, funding. Constant fundraising in the Atlanta community has kept Living Walls visible year-round, has helped grow its army of volunteers, and has made it possible to avoid the corporate presence you'll see in Miami's mural-heavy Wynwood Walls neighborhood during the Art Basel art fair, where Living Walls has sponsored walls in previous years.

Parrish finds the Miami festival overwhelming, and is critical of its “open art museum” approach. By creating a walled-in area where murals are displayed and curated as pieces would be in a museum, she felt the organizers behind Wynwood Walls had taken the “street” out of the “art.” 

“Adding that context to street art, which happens in accessible public space, takes away a huge part of it,” she said. “I don't care how much hype you add, it still makes it into something else.”

She disagreed with “ambient marketing,” ad campaigns that appropriate the language of street art to proselytize corporate America. 

“That takes away from the artwork, from the dialogue, because it immediately redirects the public's attention to these products,” said Parrish. “I think this is why our conference and organization are becoming so much bigger. People can see that we have denied [corporate sponsorship] as a necessity.”

And yes, there was controversy. Argentinian artist Hyuro painted a wall in the Chosewood neighborhood based on one of her previous animation works. It shows a sequence in which a naked woman spins as she grows body hair, which turns into a dress that she takes off. As it falls to the ground, the dress becomes a wolf and walks off the wall.

>>CLICK HERE FOR A SEGMENT FROM A LOCAL ATLANTA NEWS STATION SPOTLIGHTING NEIGHBORHOOD REACTION TO HYURO'S WALL 

According to Campana's Facebook wall, the wall's owner has ordered the mural's removal within the week. Some residents were ruffled over the piece's nudity, and questioned its artistic merit. The wall is near a mosque, a church, and is on a route frequented by the area's schoolbuses. On a local news show, parents expressed concern that their children would think it's okay for women to disrobe in public. 

Herein lies a central challenge of any public mural program: how much should it cater to residents? Is pleasing everyone even possible?

“It's really hard to place a needle in the head with that one,” said Parrish. “People are different, and they have different beliefs and cultures. [Hyuro's] wall is only highlighting something that requires thought and discussion. If that is all that the wall does this year and if they are completely upset with it, then I'm OK with it. I think that when someone, or something, [that's] very direct and visual makes people start a conversation then that means a lot.”

The wolf mural, she said, only brought issues to light that always have existed in that neighborhood, for example the prostitution, the poverty and disenfranchisement of some of its inhabitants. 

At the end of the day, getting rid of Hyuro's mural is not going to do anything positive toward getting rid of prostitution in the area or stop real estate prices from dropping in an neighborhood that has a prison in it. Whatever the outcome, it created a conversation about the female form in public space, and the role of art in community. I don't think you could find a more fitting outcome for an all-female mural conference that aimed to reshape Atlanta's urban landscape and engage its citizens in dialogue.

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