Dirty South

On last week’s “Thirsty Thursday’s Presented by Miami’s Best Graffiti Guide” livestream, we talked with legendary Atlanta-based artist Dr. Dax about his origins in the world of street art and what inspires him and his projects today. His love for the city of Atlanta is prevalent and he’s always been quick to shout out the talent that exists in the south, often under appreciated in comparison to larger street-art hotspots like New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area of California. The truth is that many cities in the southern United States have complex and valuable relationships with graffiti artists and muralists that hail from their backyards.

In Atlanta, world renowned street artists like HENSE, MECRO, Peter Ferrari, and of course Dax began their careers doing pieces on the walls and trains around town. Freight train graffiti was first popularized in the mid-1980’s when the subways in New York were refurbished in paint that made removing graffiti much easier for the local government. To preserve the longevity of their work, many artists turned to spraying freight trains, where the paint stayed longer and made it across the country, rather than being confined to the north-east. This energy translated into the freight yards of the ATL, giving local artists plenty of opportunity to practice their work. Fast forward to present and the city is filled with colorful, expressive art. So much so that the city had tried removing what was unwanted, even on private property. A 2017 lawsuit against the city favored artists in its ruling, citing that artists didn’t need city approval to paint on private property. Today several festivals and initiatives exist in Atlanta, such as Living Walls; The City Speaks, The OuterSpace Project, and Forward Warrior Mural Project to name a few.

A few states west is the vibrant city of New Orleans, known for its historically outgoing and welcoming nature. Festivals like Nola Mural Project and Buku Music + Arts Project reside in the Big Easy and it provides itself a canvas to crews like Top Mob, which was founded in 1984 by Bugs One, SGP, and Dusk. Today other global artists such as BASER, AXE ONE, DISC, HARSH, ELLEONE, GRAIL, and RISK are just a few more members who’ve been inducted into the crew. Members all have their own distinct and personal styles of graffiti, but mesh well when collaborating on murals around New Orleans and the world. After hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, Nola became even more of a hotspot for street art, many pieces becoming more political in nature.

In 2008, one of the most influential street artists in the world, Banksy, made a tour of the city, erecting 14 to 17 pieces in a few days (the actual number is disputed.) All were social commentary on the city’s handling (or lack thereof) of the catastrophe and the impact that it had on its residents. Though the works were significant to the art community globally, the city and property owners painted over or knocked down most of the work, while vandals covered others. Today only 3 pieces remain in their original locations, covered in plexiglass to preserve whatever is left. One of the works from a demolished building was uncovered and now resides in the International House Hotel off of Camp St.

Just like in Atlanta, New Orleans didn’t truly appreciate the value of art like Banksy’s or anyone else’s, which was proven by their demolition of the works. This eventually led to a similar lawsuit against the city and a court ruling also favoring artists in 2019. The city’s regulation process for street art was deemed unconstitutional, as private property owners were allowed to commission whoever they’d like to paint on their property. The reality is that local artists have always existed in these locations and other cities like Birmingham, Asheville, Charleston, and Memphis and each artist’s work is invaluable to the areas in which they reside. Their art represents a tone driven by a culture that only they can genuinely portray. These battles are important to providing artists the opportunity to start conversation within their communities, but it shouldn’t take lawsuits and outrage to provide a governing voice to the historically ungoverned. No one needs to represent the south because they’re doing a pretty good job of it.

Vicky Hoppe

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