Krog Street tunnel resonates or repels

Krog Street tunnel resonates or repels

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/02/07
Original Article

Totem arrived unarmed: no spray can.

Dressed in evening tunnel formal — black stocking cap, black down vest, black pants, black shoes — he strolled the dark, dank Krog Street tunnel, beneath the tracks at the edge of Cabbagetown, like a night-crawling curator.

At 30, Totem doesn't work the tunnel anymore. But as one of the earliest artists to spray paint Atlanta's most talked-about illegal canvas, he knows the work of many who do: Teach, Baser, Drue.

Amir Totem — his full name when he's not tagging walls — stopped in front of his own work: a five-year-old portrait of noir actor Robert Mitchum pulling on a cigarette.

"For years people have been telling me about that piece," he said as cars rumbled by amid the tunnel's booming reverb. "It's like a pebble in a pond. It resonates. You put up one
tag, and it goes on and on."

Regarded either as art or eyesore, the nearly 100-year-old Krog Street tunnel endures as an urban
shout-out in a fast-gentrifying city.

For some, especially neighborhood outsiders, the tunnel's unruly mix of goofball lettering, quirky stencils and political aggression serves as a kind of end-of-times sandwich board— a big, dense warning that danger lurks, starting NOW.

Yet for many who live or work near it, the short drive through the subterranean two-lane between DeKalb Avenue and Wylie Street is a comic book-style joyride, complete with spray-painted alerts about upcoming festivals and hmmm-prompting maxims like "Forget nothing, regret nothing." The tunnel is a signpost that one has entered not only a new neighborhood, but a new state of mind.

'It's a crossroads'

It is trumpeted on artsy Web sites around the country as a must-see Atlanta attraction, and out-of-towners take pictures of it almost daily. It has been captured in movies like "ATL" and music videos by performers like local hip-hop artist Big Boi.

Local bands use it as a backdrop for CD covers. One band even recorded inside the tunnel to get a sound like nowhere else ("Like a voice within an echo within a nightmare within a dream," Bill Taft, of the band Hubcap City, described the effect). Another band is rumored to have performed there in the nude.

"It's a crossroads. It's got a lotta soul," said Kirstin Mitchell, 35, a designer and performance artist who drives through the tunnel daily from her home nearby. "It not only separates Inman Park from Cabbagetown, it's almost like going through some rite of passage every time you go through to the other side."

James McConnell, co-owner of Midtown's Beep Beep Gallery, which has exhibited graffiti artists, added of the tunnel-driving experience, "It's sort of like a really fast slideshow. It's refreshing to have a place like that. It shows this is not just a painted-over town, where everything's crisp and clean. It's a reminder that these things are out there."

Mural project

The Krog Street tunnel was built, circa 1910, so commuters could duck under the railroad when Cabbagetown was a booming, Appalachian-rooted mill town. It remained merely a way to get from one side of the tracks to the other until the mill closed in the 1970s and the neighborhood began to decline.

The graffiti that covered the tunnel in the 1980s and '90s had the slash-and-burn bluntness of simple vandalism — what-the-hell markings in a neighborhood whose future was still hard to fathom. Most of it was gang-related, longtime residents say.

Atlanta's wall of choice back then for those who took their graffiti seriously was called the Civic Yard, an open downtown lot owned by St. Luke's Episcopal Church, near the Civic Center.

But a crackdown there around the time the city passed an anti-graffiti ordinance drove many artists to Krog Street. One of the first to create memorable tags inside the tunnel, say graffiti artists who were around at the time, was an Atlanta College of Art student from Germany who identified himself on walls as "Juis."

"It was a sign it could be done," said Totem, who soon tagged the tunnel himself.

Cabbagetown officials tried several times to paint over the graffiti, only to see it return instantly. So in 2002 a mural project was started, with neighborhood officials giving written permission to artists wanting to express themselves. A stampede of spray cans followed.

"You'd just fill in the blank with your name," said Andrew Monroe, 25, a Georgia State University student who helped start the project. "That's how so many people got involved."

But the tunnel is owned by CSX Transportation, so the permission slips didn't have any legal
authority. As the tunnel's popularity grew, murals were tagged and covered over by any passerby with a spray can. Atlanta police responded to occasional complaints by handing out citations, or jailing those caught without identification. Well-known local graffiti artists ditched the tunnel in favor of less popular sites, tired of seeing their best work defaced.

Not without its critics

The tunnel now is a free-for-all, with graffiti pouring out for blocks outside it. Besides the random scrawls and obscenities, the dimly-lit walls are a many-layered, rainbow-colored grab bag: a cartoon mouse, a "Don't Forget JB (James Brown)" stencil, variations on the sentiment
"No War," a delicately drawn flying pig (unsigned), the outsized bubble lettering of an old-school New York graffitist called Theme.

David Bishop, who owns the 97 Estoria restaurant on Wylie Street across from the tunnel, has seen kids with boxes of spray paint shake the cans in his parking lot. He said one group even came inside to ask if it was OK to paint the tunnel, "as if I have any say over it."

"A lot of hipster kids drink at my bar, and those are the kinds of kids who like to tag things," he added. "I wouldn't give them up just to get rid of the graffiti."

In an area where shotgun houses now sell for more than $300,000, not everyone is enamored with the tunnel's landmark counterculture status.

"I think it's terrible," said Betty Anglin, 78, who worked in the mill for 20 years. "I don't see it as art. I see it as something disgusting."

Some business owners say the tunnel's graffiti encourages other neighbhorhood crimes. But that's
such a minority opinion that one business owner would only talk about it anonymously, fearing a backlash against his business. He recalled voicing his anti-graffiti sentiment at one neighborhood meeting and feeling, he said, like everybody "wanted to kill me."

It's hard to gauge how deep those feelings run. But the tunnel is often a hot topic on the neighborhood's e-mail group.

"If you went door-to-door, you'd get a different idea from everybody," said Lynne Splinter, a real estate agent who moved to Cabbagetown 10 years ago. "Of the 400 residences, you'd get about 278 different answers. But the more newbies we get in here, the more the issue goes on."

Ad hoc billboard

At this point, few residents think there's any way to stop people from tagging in the tunnel. Nathan Bolster, board member of the Cabbagetown Initiative and a past neighborhood president, wants to make the tunnel an arrest-free zone for graffitists. It has already become the neighborhood's unofficial billboard, with notices for events — including e-mail addresses — spray painted around the DeKalb Avenue entrance. An urban geography class at Georgia State University has even taken a field trip there.

"It has started to transcend graffiti," said Totem, who now runs a legitimate mural painting business. "You have the random band that writes their names, the hipster chick with
the shaved hair who whips out a can, the lame art school kid who pulls out a stencil.

"All of it's cool," he added. "It's a good interpretation of the neighborhood."

That interpretation, of course, is open to interpretation.