ATLANTA — In this city, artist and muralist Fabian “Occasional Superstar” Williams has found himself in the middle of what looks like a censorship attempt by the city. Williams’s popular murals often feature portraits of African Americans who have pushed for equality, even if they went against mainstream politics. His portraits of Hosea Williams (a civil rights leader) and James Baldwin (an iconic, black, gay writer) adorn large walls in Atlanta. The work of his that has caused a firestorm of controversy is a portrait of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player criticized for kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.
In 2017, at the height of the Kaepernick controversy, Fabian Williams painted a portrait of the then NFL player wearing Atlanta Falcons gear with a glowing halo around his afro. The mural was painted in guerilla style on the side of an abandoned building in Southwest Atlanta. Williams staked out the building for weeks and knew that it wasn’t being actively used, so he discreetly painted the portrait in the middle of the night.
“I felt like if there was any team in the NFL that Kaepernick should play for, it’s the Falcons. We are home to the civil rights movement, to so much black history. I figured he would be welcomed here,” says Williams.
That initial portrait of Colin Kaepernick gained Williams increased notoriety in Atlanta, and it remained up well after the media had moved on from the controversy around player protests during the national anthem … that is, until NFL bigwigs came to town for the Super Bowl (which took place on Sunday, February 3 in Atlanta).
Williams’s original Kaepernick mural is about one and a half miles from Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which hosted this year’s Super Bowl. About a week before the game, the mural and the wall it was painted on was demolished. The property owner had filed a request with the City of Atlanta for a demolition permit, but according to city records, it was never approved. Within days of filing for the permit, the entire structure was gone, which is very strange given the slow timeline Atlanta operates on. Usually, demolition permits take weeks, if not months, for approval. For demolition to occur days after a request is filed is very out of the ordinary.
“It felt suspicious, like someone was trying to send a message. Tearing down the Colin Kaepernick mural right before the Super Bowl, and right at the beginning of Black History Month,” says Williams.
With the Super Bowl then days away, Fabian Williams decided to respond the best way he knew how — paint more murals. The Kaepernick mural became like a Medusa head: After the one mural was destroyed, Williams ended up painting nine more.
With the help of several artist friends, Williams peppered the city of Atlanta with more murals of Colin Kaepernick, right in time for the Super Bowl. Williams says the response has been very positive, and he has been featured on NPR, BBC, and other press outlets talking about this story. The community response as well has been very supportive of Williams. Many of the new Kaepernick murals were placed, with permission, on the walls of prominent local businesses. One of the locations, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium (a very popular local bar), has been the site of several iconic murals, including a recent portrait of black political figure Stacey Abrams.
The community effort to support Fabian Williams shows the willingness of Atlantans to support art and progressive causes. The artist attests that this project was a true community effort that shows the true spirit of Atlanta.
So, was there a conspiracy? Gabrielle Ware, a public information officer for the city of Atlanta says that the reason the building was demolished, even though the demo request was still listed online as “pending,” is that a judge ordered it. So, is there some massive anti-Colin Kaepernick conspiracy in Atlanta which includes a corrupt legal system? Probably not.
The building where the original mural was painted was gutted by a fire in summer of 2018. Eventually, the walls of the building were on verge of collapsing, and the wall with the Kaepernick mural on the verge of falling into the street. There were no other support structures holding up the building.
“We went to a judge to request an emergency approval for demolition,” says Ike Dendy of IPD Construction Engineering, who helped demolish the wall the mural was on. “That wall had to come down because it was a danger. A strong wind could have knocked it over. That wall could have fallen on someone walking by on the sidewalk, or fallen into the building next door to it. We had to take it down.”
Ike says he is very sorry if anybody thought this was done maliciously, and didn’t realize the uproar this would provoke. Ike is an African American man who has lived and worked in Atlanta for four decades, but he says he doesn’t really follow the NFL and didn’t know much about the Colin Kaepernick story.
Although the City of Atlanta is not above political hijinks, with city council members and City Hall insiders constantly being charged with corruption, it’s unlikely that this is a case of anti-Colin Kaepernick artistic censorship. Considering the liberal nature of Atlanta’s City Hall, which is led by a strong, black female mayor, such censorship would go against the image the city tries to portray. Also, it’s unlikely that a judge would approve a demolition in a fishy situation. What this really comes down to is bad timing, but it provided Fabian Williams a great platform for an important political message.
It seems fitting that this happened in Atlanta. The symbol for the city is the phoenix, rising from the ashes and rubble of destruction to become something new. This is the story of how many murals rose from the rubble of one, and started a conversation about how art can push progressive politics in the deep South.
As Williams says: “Art is powerful and visual artists need to consider their voice in making their work. I want my fellow artists to look at themselves differently and work in their power.”