By John Fleming
Away from the bustle of Little Five Points, over on a quieter patch beyond Gregory Davis Plaza, is the home of a previously faded mural.
You might have seen it while walking down Seminole Avenue, as you approach the turnaround, just shy of the plaza. Until a few weeks ago, it had the look of neglect. Go have a look now, though, and you’ll find it’s stirring back to vibrancy, bringing to life history and praise of others.
Fade to 1985
In 1985, a noted muralist named David Fichter set up shop here, at 424 Seminole, to create the Peace Mural. Fichter, mostly a Massachusetts-based artist, has spread his work in streets here, there, and around the world. As Harvard Magazine put it, “Brick walls are his canvas and his preferred surface.”
As for the Seminole Peace Mural, his website explains that it told the story of “nonviolent resistance to the use and spread of nuclear weapons,” depicting Albert Einstein, Dorthy Day, and Bayard Rustin, among others.
Today, the man resurrecting this mural has nothing but respect for Fichter and has decided to include many of his original images and messages.
This new mural, however, dubbed “Peace Wall Redux,” is the sole work of Mister Totem. (“Mister Totem” is what everyone calls him and that’s what he wants you to call him, too, so we’ll stick to that here.)
On a recent morning, Totem could be found perched atop a ladder, a few yards down the wall from his exquisite rendering of Albert Einstein. On this day, he’s making plenty of progress, but he has yards to go before he’s finished. Still to come are heroes we celebrate closer to home – including Martin Luther King.
“This is a remembrance of Fichter’s work,” said Totem, “a tip of the hat to him. But there are many of my elements in this as well.”
Stepping down off the ladder and joining a visitor to observe the entire wall, he explains the original work; what it was meant to evoke – hard-nosed social commentary – and what “Redux” is meant to say. He seems to suggest that it’s something softer, something that sounds to the visitor more like love and life.
“The general structure is the same,” he says, referring to the old mural. “But, I’m giving it the graffiti writer’s feel, of Mister Totem’s work.”
Totem’s new creation is not fine art, but something more inherently American: graffiti. The art form is a complicated subject, worthy of an epic essay. So for now, Totem offers this synopsis:
“Graffiti writing as a medium is different from fine art,” he says. “Fine art is not inherently American. Graffiti art is and it is born out of chaos, it says: ‘I am here.’”
The L5P Alliance Steps Up
When the Little Five Points Alliance started contemplating rescuing the Seminole Peace Mural, the first move was to reach out to the property owner, Tomas Valenti, who quickly agreed to the plan.
The mural was in bad shape, having been damaged by a car accident years earlier and it had begun to fade. When Saskia Benjamin, the L5P Alliance board chair, looked a little closer at the old mural, she found that some of the artwork on previously damaged parts of the mural were made by Totem.
“The Alliance reached out to Mr. Totem to see if he’d be interested in working with us on the project,” Lauren Welsh, executive director of the Little Five Points Alliance, wrote in an email.
Welsh added that Totem “was excited to partner with the Alliance on a new piece of art that would bridge the generations by including images from the original Seminole Peace Mural combined with more current street art.”
With funding from the L5P Alliance and an NPU-N grant received in April of 2023, the project got underway.
Before he could do the Redux, Totem needed a wall prep. Candler Park turned out for that, laying down his choice of a neutral pink to get things started. Back row, left to right: Scott Pendergrast, L5P CID representative; Joy Osmanski and Corey Brill, Euclid Terrace residents; Rob Pollock, Candler Street resident; Saskia Benjamin, the L5P Alliance board chair; Amy Stout, Candler Park Conservancy projects chair. Front row: Mister Totem, with two Candler Park junior artists.
Totem brings his own vision, but he doesn’t work in isolation – he wanted a community conversation. So at the annual “People Make the Place” event in August, he got feedback from L5P. The result, wrote Welsh, is “a blending of the two artistic styles now present in today’s artwork.”
It Begins with Family
Totem, 48, is not new to this. See his previous works around the city, including the mural on the south side of the Moreland tunnel under DeKalb Avenue. His work can also be seen in other places, including Peru, Sweden, Germany, and Japan – results of State Department-sponsored trips.
His focus, though, is right here in his hometown, Atlanta, and with his family. He’s the father of four boys, ages 4, 6, 13 and 16. Those four, more than anything, are what drives him.
“My sons are my greatest pleasure,” he says, as he ascends the ladder to go back to work on the Peace Wall Redux. “You know, peace begins with fatherhood.”
John Fleming is CPNO’s Communication Officer.