Roti’s “Allegory of the Human City” and Its Fate inCapitolView/Pittsburgh
Shortly after we moved to Capitol View, French muralist and street artist Roti was brought to Atlanta by the Living Walls organization, to paint a
legally-approved* mural on a wall on University Avenue next to the 75 freeway. Titled “An Allegory of the Human City,” the long, highly complex and detailed piece was, in my not-so-humble opinion, a delightful addition to the urban, industrial landscape. The wall, owned by the Atlanta Department of Transportation, also happened to be right next to the “Welcome to Pittsburgh–A Weed & Seed Community” sign.
The artist released a statement about his work: “Fish symbolize people in our society – the big fish eat the smaller fish. They serve as the infinite symbol because the structure of society functions as an eternal cycle. Nonetheless, the small fish are the center of the mural, as they build and feed the city. The man in the fish mask holds a clock with a keyhole. On the other side of the city, a snake holds the key to the lock. By unlocking the keyhole, the snake could stop time, allowing for the city to morph into a utopia. Ultimately, the human body holds the moon inside the cage, because we want to control things we can’t control.”
Now, again IMNSHO, any community should take greater exception to being called “A Weed & Seed Community” than it should to a fascinating and well-executed mural, but who am I to speak for Pittsburgh? Apparently a Pittsburgh-based church was opposed to the mural, with its imagery of fish, a snake, a shark and an alligator, and felt that the image was Satanic. (Here’s a good article explaining the full story.) In broad daylight these holy crusaders painted over the mural with flat gray paint. Luckily for us heathens, Capitol View residents contacted the DOT and went out with their own rags and brushes and removed the buff-out paint before it could dry. The mural is restored as best as it could be.
There was a huge amount of community furor over this inter-neighborhood conflict, but in my opinion the most interesting thing is the very imagery in Roti’s mural. You’ll notice in the center of it, his representation of the city itself is almost completely dominated by buildings with arched Gothic construction and “rose windows“–Roti’s entire city is comprised almost entirely of churches.
Churches who wanted to remove the mural, apparently.
Before condemning any single piece of work, it’s worth it to look at the body of work created by the artist, learn about what they’re trying to communicate, and question your own reactions as prompted by the artwork. Looking at Roti’s oeuvre, it seems that he uses imagery of many animals in his pieces, creating a bestiary that acts to reflect and interpret the artist’s own ideas about humanity and the world. There doesn’t appear to be any “Satanic” message in his work (and this is coming from a gal who’s seen her fair share of genuine occultist art and religious imagery). I’m mostly caught up in the genuine beauty of the piece, which manages to sweep the cityscape into an undulant sea of scales, as of a fish, light refracting from windows the way it glimmers off a vast school of fish beneath the surface of the waves. The imagery connects our own humanity and the architecture of civilization into the raw, visceral state of being possessed by Roti’s own alligators and sharks, a way of bringing humanity back to basics, our limbs to fins in the sea, our legions of people just animals, like every other creature on earth.
* Apparently it was NOT legally-approved, through a tweak of red tape. The mural will be painted over shortly, I have been informed. Get your photos and enjoy the imagery while you can.