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A mural dilemma
If these walls could talk they'd have some 'splaining to do

Some will catch a glimpse of the kaleidoscopic new mural at 109 MLK Blvd. and see a bike sporting two figures, its giant wheels seeming to spin. Me, I see the making of another kind of revolution.

The latest installation by See Savannah Art Walls was conceived when a little sneaker company named Converse tapped Savannah for Wall to Wall, an international marketing campaign that invites local artists to create public murals around its iconic brand. Savannah joins Barcelona, Napoli, Manhattan, Lyon and several dozen other über-cool cities under Wall to Wall's global umbrella of urban awesomeness.

In a brilliant strategy, Converse has teamed with revered culture rag Juxtapoz Magazine, lending what might've been embarrassingly obvious product placement some serious street cred. Though its ostensible goal is to sell shoes, the campaign utilizes street art as its medium and its message: That painting the blank walls we pass every day brings people together, starts conversations and creates community.

That maxim could be viewed in full effect last week. SeeSAW co-founder Matt Hebermehl, rocking his own pair of marked-up Chuck Taylors and a streaked mechanic's jumpsuit, spent two days painting up the plywood in front of crumbling façade of what may forever be referred to as the old Café Metropole. (Not uncoincidentally, this was one of the sites of last year's Before I Die project, chalkboards that invite passersby to share their most heartfelt bucket list confessions. You may recall that the project's other installation on Waters Avenue was taken down after some joker chalked in a Cartoon of Inappropriate Content.)

Suits on their way into Wasabi's and the new City Coffee sidestepped the paint cans and nodded approval. Students schlepping backpacks on their way to class risked tardiness to stare in wonderment as Hebermehl crossed his canvas with teal and orange and purple. Many stopped to chat about the figures evolving before their eyes.

"The image of two kids on a bike is identifiably 'Savannah' for me," Matt mused in between swipes of a homemade long-handled brush.

"It's a statement about doing what you need to do to get where you want to go."

His elucidation struck me upside the head, an art attack of the profoundest kind, something that applies to all of us citizens: Faced with a challenge, we learn to adapt. Instead of standing around complaining that there's only one seat and two people, we find a solution. We are Savannahians, and we make it work.

"Ridin'" might be considered a fundamental and colorful testament to the creativity, relevance and cooperative spirit of our city.

But does Savannah truly represent such ideals?

Let's review the labyrinthine process through which our artist, an internationally-recognized muralist and painter, had to crawl to get the City of Savannah's approval to paint a long-abandoned storefront with a mural to be featured in a global art magazine backed by one of the most well-known shoe brands on the planet:

First, he filed a petition with the Site and Monument Commission as per the newly-adopted public art policy, which he helped author. That paperwork listed Hebermehl's first location choice, a tasty two-story slab of bricks on the side of Atwell's Art & Frame on Broughton Street, with proximity to a vacant lot and the eyes of thousands of visiting and local shoppers. At the subsequent hearing, Hebermehl presented his bikescape as a tribute to the tradition of hand-painted signage and vernacular style. His request was promptly denied.

Ellen Harris, the urban planning manager for the Metropolitan Planning Commission, explained that it wasn't that the committee didn't like the idea, they just didn't like it there. Broughton is sacrosanct as a high-end shopping district, and street art doesn't belong, even if it is essentially an ad for hi-top kicks.

"The main thing, it was just so very large," said Harris regretfully.

A loyal friend of SeeSAW, Harris was also instrumental in the creation of the public art policy and encouraged Hebermehl to find another location. With the help of realtors Lori Judge and Jacqueline Mason, he regrouped and settled on Old Faithful around the corner, the old Metropole, and submitted another application.

The Converse campaign was time-sensitive, so a special MPC hearing had to be called for early April. This time Hebermehl got the city's blessing for a scaled-down version of "Ridin'", though he didn't even try to push for more than a temporary 30-day permit. (So get out there and see the mural before it's gone!)

It's a mixed message that the city is sending: Savannah wants to embrace public art and its cultural brownie points, but only within a certain aesthetic. Still, you have to appreciate the process by which the mural was finally approved — so thorough, so thoughtful.

If only that much deliberation was given to every project that even slightly altered the Savannah landscape.

Speaking of the Nightmare on 61st Street, Chance Partners continues to slap together its four-story student rooming house near Habersham Village, in spite of uproarious objections from neighbors, reports of alarming shortcuts on the construction site and countless violations of the city's noise ordinance.

While I had Harris on the phone, I asked her how the MPC can go all TSA Cavity Search on a public art mural while snoring through the approval of an unwanted steroidal housing development.

An expert in historic preservation, she divulged that even though the surrounding neighborhood was built just after WWII, it's not protected by official historic status. Any neighborhood older than 50 can apply as a safeguard against developers, but that won't help the people now living in the shadow of the hideous ziggurat.

"People don't realize how vulnerable they are until something bad happens," sighed Harris. "But it can be a spur to action."

Public discussion on this project has been disturbingly opaque. After city attorney Lester Johnson issued a letter on April 26 threatening a stop-work order over zoning irregularities uncovered in this column a few weeks ago, Chance's lawyers liposuctioned their leasing practices to squeeze into the regulations like Mama Boo Boo into a Spandex tube top. Which does absolutely nothing to address the bullying height of the buildings, the increase in noise and light and the upcoming inevitable parking snafus.

City Manager Stephanie Cutter has promised a public meeting at which residents can request concessions from the developers, like a tall tree buffer and donations to local schools.

I have another suggestion in mind: Make Chance pay SeeSAW top dollar to paint the entire façade of Avenues on 61st with a mural — a permanent one. Maybe something along the lines of a big live oak?

It would be a reminder to Savannahians to stay vigilant about the things they value and a way to ignite the conversation on what it truly means to relate as a community. The neighbors would get to vote on the final design themselves, a tiny victory against the bureaucratic forces that dictate what art is and where it belongs as it bulldozes over the aesthetic value of a storied old neighborhood.

It's far from a perfect solution. But hey, you gotta do what you need to do to get where you want to go.