The New School, Atlanta.
The New School, Atlanta. ()

Atlanta has given some of its artists until June 9 to seek city approval of murals displayed on private property that are visible to the public. Without such approval, the city has said, the works will be removed, and the artists could potentially face prosecution.

But that threat by the city to remove artwork visible to the public, even if it’s on private property, prompted several artists on Tuesday to sue the city to stop it from enforcing the ordinance.

The city’s public arts coordinator calls its policy “buffing.” In an April email sent to Living Walls, an Atlanta organization that has promoted public murals by local and international artists, arts coordinator Haley Carlson urged the organization to notify city muralists to certify their public murals with the city in what she said would be an expedited process to allow murals now in existence to secure city approval.

The plaintiffs include Grant Henry, owner of the Fourth Ward’s funky Sister Louisa Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, and his Church Murch store. He is joined by artist and illustrator Fabian “Occasional Superstar” Williams, painter and muralist Peter “PLF” Ferrari, and Brazilian-born artist Benito “Yoyo” Ferro. All have publicly visible art on their private property or engage in the creation of public art.

Civil rights attorney Gerry Weber has partnered with Zack Greenamyre of Atlanta’s Mitchell & Shapiro in seeking an injunction in federal court in Atlanta on the artists’ behalf. The suit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg.

The lawsuit contends that the city ordinance is unconstitutional because the onerous certification process and the requirement that each work of art be pre-approved by three city departments—the Office of Transportation, the Urban Design Commission and the Office of Cultural Affairs—as well as the city council and the mayor before it can be displayed suppresses protected speech. The ordinance includes a criminal provision, punishable by a fine as high as $1,000 and six months in jail if the artwork is not certified by the city as consistent with its public art program and, according to the ordinance, “does not negatively affect the public interest related to aesthetics, additional sign clutter, and public safety.”

According to the suit, the city also recommends that the artists secure pre-approval of any planned, publicly visible work from both the area’s neighborhood planning unit and its local city council member.

That and other terms of the ordinance convey what the suit refers to as “standardless discretion” to city officials to approve or deny artistic expression, a form of “content-based discrimination.”

In addition, the suit claims that were the city to paint over walls containing publicly visible artwork that it has not certified, that would “constitute a trespass” by government “directly appropriating or destroying the private property of another.”

The Daily Report has contacted city officials for comment, but they did not immediately reply.

Weber said Tuesday that the lawsuit “is limited to private property works that aren’t either funded or on public property nor, for that matter, are government-sponsored.”

The murals at issue “are not inexpensive ventures” for a number of the businesses that display them on their outer walls, he said.

Weber also labeled the certification process “strange.” He also criticized it as having “absolutely no time limitations” as to how long the city could take before certifying—or refusing to certify—a proposed work on private property. “And if you don’t have a city council sponsor,” he added, “your mural is dead in the water.”

“I’m not sure we understand the full backdrop of it.”