A Soundtrack Below the Tracks: Busking and Public Performance in Krog Tunnel and Atlanta.

While doing our weekly survey on August 26th, we observed an individual playing a brass instrument while passing through the tunnel. This sound permeated throughout the tunnel and was an entertaining variation from the regular sounds of cars, footsteps, and quiet chatter that usually echo in the tunnel. Around a year ago, the tunnel actually had a public piano installed by a local non-profit, Play Me Again Pianos, which supplies and maintains hand-painted pianos to public spaces and businesses. This piano has since been retired, but we were able to capture its sound in use last September. Although these two musicians were simply passing through, there is an entire culture and economy around performing in public spaces for an audience. Street Performance, also known as busking, is the act of performing in a public space, sometimes for tips or other gratuities. 

Person playing piano in the tunnel. September 17, 2022.

You can often see these folks on the BeltLine, occasionally downtown, and outside large gatherings. But the Krog tunnel seems to be a venue that isn’t being utilized. It is already implied that it is a space of unrestricted self-expression, there is ample space for passing and stationary pedestrianism, and the space is equipped with a unique set of spatial acoustics. In fact, there seem to be several spaces throughout metro Atlanta. that could be utilized for performance, but aren’t. So why aren’t performing artists using the space? The answer to this could lie in laws regarding public solicitation and noise that are often shrouded in legal jargon. This diminishes opportunities for valuable creative expression in metro Atlanta. 

Audio of a person playing the horn in the tunnel. August 26, 2023.

Busking and street performance without a permit is legal in Atlanta as long as they maintain noise levels, do not verbally or explicitly solicit money from viewers, and perform within a certain window of time during the day (Atlanta, Ga.- Code of Ordinances. Ch 74, Article IV, Sec. 74-129). 2017). However, as with any metropolitan area, there are differing expectations of how space should be used. Businesses, residents, and other onlookers can report the performance as a noise disturbance. If the performer has a tip jar out, this could be misinterpreted as panhandling. Additionally, past codes have outlawed or greatly restricted public performances.  A 1993 city ordinance cracked down on street vendors without permits and, in some interpretations of this, street performers were included under this umbrella (Atlanta, Ga.-Code of Ordinances. Ch. 30, Article XXXIV, Sec. 30-1482). This specific ordinance requires a $50 street permit in order to sell food or merchandise outside of a business zoned to do so. One subsection of this ordinance includes “street music” as a service that requires a permit. Despite a separate ordinance stating that street performance is free and legal, this conflicting measure states otherwise. This was an issue that even the ACLU spoke out on.

In the years since several ordinances on panhandling have been passed, some with conflicting definitions of what panhandling is along with varying levels of enforcement; another law that street performers were occasionally grouped in. In 2013, an amendment to Atlanta’s existing panhandling laws included a statute that prohibited solicitation within 15 feet of any entrance. This includes businesses, private and public buildings, parking garages, and festival entrances (Atlanta, Ga.-Code of Ordinances. Ch. 106, Article III, Sec. 106-85. 2013). This greatly impacted the types of spaces that performers were presumably safe to perform in, as buskers were still at risk of being persecuted under solicitation laws. Following the passage of the “aggressive panhandling” code, two buskers were arrested after performing with their instrument cases open and accepting tips. One was a 20-year-old trombonist outside of Turner Field (now Center Parc Stadium) named Eryk McDaniel and the other was a Brooklyn Violinist in a MARTA station who went by the name Johnny Arco. McDaniel spent the night in custody, and Arco spent six nights in custody, according to a Creative Loafing Article written about the arrests. At this point, even some city council members acknowledged that the literature surrounding street performance was confusing and that it should be made more clear that the act is legal within certain behavioral parameters. However, the ordinances that risk street performance being criminalized still remain within the extensive code of ordinances. All of these codes have accumulated into varying and inconsistent reactions from law enforcement agencies to isolated situations, often not in favor of the rights of the performers. This unpredictability and lack of communication about the content of the laws have likely scared street performers from exhibiting their work anywhere but the spots where they are habitually safe from harassment. 

There are some programs that strive to bridge the gap between the legality of impromptu public art and performance and varying codes and ordinances. The city of Decatur has a permit program for busking and performers in order to maintain safety for performers and patrons and ensure space for performers in the city’s many public/private spaces. This program is facilitated by an arts alliance and is not an official ordinance. MARTA’s ArtBound program is the agency’s visual and performance art program and regularly schedules musical performances throughout stations. Like graffiti, busking has inherent ties to American railroads and commuter trains. However, this program doesn’t encapsulate the spontaneity of true busking: performers are discouraged from performing for tips (as they are paid by the agency) and are not scheduled to perform on the trains, only in station concourses. Nonetheless, these performances can still bring a new life to the regular activity in streets and train stations, as traditional busking would. 

Live music can change the spirit of the environment it’s in, a change that can be interpreted as a welcomed shift, or a public nuisance. The benefits of allowing creative expression within reasonable parameters outweigh any rare instances of folks using their time and talent to create negativity or “disturb the peace.” For many, seeing a public performer was their first interaction with live music. Busking also gives new and seasoned musicians the opportunity to see how their work sounds or feels to perform in front of strangers. Additionally, busking can be a way of celebrating and rewarding pedestrianism, and points of social connection in the urban landscape. These performances aren’t necessarily something you can interact with in an automobile. Music, undoubtedly, is a force that can make people come together and realize we share more in common with one another than not. And in a city as musically inclined as Atlanta, more music and more sound can have the power to increase community pride and participation. In the context of the tunnel, busking could be a sort of sonic graffiti, as it temporarily and easily draws the attention of the pedestrians that pass through and adds to the multi-sensory experience of the tunnel.  

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