When she arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday, the subway underpass was blank concrete, speckled with dirt, spiderwebs and weeds. By Sunday, Ms. Freeman, a 25-year-old Memphis muralist, will have turned it into her latest artwork: a lattice of blue and pink shapes, brightening a once-dull roadway.
She will also have joined an assault on blight in Atlanta. Here in a city with one of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates, a project called Living Walls commissions artists to spruce up recession-hit neighborhoods.
While traditional graffiti may often be seen as a sign of urban decay, these murals — sprawling, brightly colored portraits and designs — aim to instill some optimism.
The Atlanta-based project, which began last week and ends Sunday, gives 28 artists their own spaces: sides of buildings, foreclosed houses and subway underpasses. All paintings are done with owners’ permission and city permits, in neighborhoods like the crumbling Edgewood district, not far from where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up.
“Painting a mural is not just saving money for the wall owner,” said Monica Campana, who helped found the project in 2010. “It’s giving a new look to a block, and it may be helping the neighborhood economically.”
This year, its third, Living Walls has invited only female muralists. The goal is to showcase the creations, in aerosol and latex paint, of women from around the world, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Italy and Spain. The project, which includes lectures and parties celebrating street art, is also meant as an alternative to larger conferences, like Art Basel Miami or the Congress for the New Urbanism.
As Living Walls has grown in scope and recognition, its sponsorship has expanded to include a prominent law firm, the Museum of Design Atlanta and the W Hotel, where the artists receive free lodging. And there are other signs of Atlanta’s embracing street art. A 22-mile loop of jogging trails and public parks under construction around the city now features an array of commissioned works. “We’re not New York, we’re not L.A., we’re not Miami, with the history of street art,” Ms. Campana said. “But in a sense, that’s what’s appealing: you can bring street art to a new city.”
The city has also redoubled efforts to rub out a different form of street art: illegal graffiti. Two years ago, the mayor created a graffiti task force and the Atlanta police dedicated a full-time officer to track down the most prolific offenders. Last October, the city arrested seven men between 19 and 29 who they said were responsible for 800 acts of graffiti vandalism. They received fines and probation.
One of those arrested, Josh Feigert, 28, sees a double standard in the city’s embrace of projects like Living Walls, while it cracks down on graffiti. “It seems hypocritical,” he said. “I would hope people would learn a little more about graffiti, and that it is an art form, as well.”
But a police spokesman, Carlos Campos, said it was not the department’s job to determine the line between art and graffiti.
“If someone spray-paints on a piece of property that doesn’t belong to them, without permission, that is a crime,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic it is.”
R. J. Rushmore, a blogger who created a popular site called Vandalog about street art, said the form was so dominated by men that he had mistakenly assumed that some new, anonymous artists were men.
“This really bucks the trend of it being a boy’s club,” he said.
Shanda Rogers is a makeup artist at a salon in the East Atlanta neighborhood where one of the murals was painted. A formerly drab wall is now covered with the bright zigzags and the smiling faces of three Jamaican children.
“It just makes me want to dance,” Ms. Rogers said. “This whole neighborhood feels different.”
Even once-skeptical neighborhoods have embraced the murals. Rodney Bowman, a carpenter, had grown so frustrated by illegal graffiti artists that he spent a night in a tree waiting to catch the vandals who struck at a nearby church. But he found a mural by Living Walls to his liking.
“Graffiti is just some scrawl,” he said. “But this is beautiful. This is art.”