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A Brief History of The Krog Street Tunnel

Pillar 25, 26, 27, and a Road Divider as seen from the Opposite Side of the Tunnel. 35 mm Photograph, January 22nd, 2022. Krog Codex Archive, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia.

The Krog Street Tunnel is best known as Atlanta’s hub for street art. It is frequented by established artists, people exploring graffiti as a medium, spectators, and commuters. Structurally, it is a two-lane underpass that runs below Hulsey Yard, a rail yard operated by CSX. In substance, it is a fluid, living art gallery. It has become a point of pride for the surrounding neighborhoods and a must-see attraction for folks visiting the area. It’s also free. There’s no cover to enter this gallery and there’s no commission to show your work here. The art in the tunnel is highly visible and perpetually changing. On any given day, artists are posting murals, stencils, tags, wheat-pasted posters, political statements, mosaics, curse words, stickers, phone numbers, and advertisements. You can come back the next day and observe a completely different collection of pieces.

Birth of Venus and Tags, Spray Painted on the West Side of Krog Street Tunnel. 360 Photograph of Pillar 12, January 22nd, 2022, R0011247_20220122234401.12. Krog Codex Archive, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia. 

The Tunnel’s rich visuals and prominence pose several questions on legality and creative freedom. The tunnel has become a neutral territory where residents and tourists alike can use its walls as a community resource. In this space, it is artistic expression, outside of it, it is vandalism. Krog can be labeled as so many things: an experiment in the decriminalization of certain petty crimes, a gathering place for creatives, a selling point for real estate development, a testament to community autonomy, or just a neat phenomenon of density. Krog Street Tunnel is a mirror of unrestricted and authentic public attitudes and creativity and is an integral piece of Atlanta’s cultural fabric.

Krog Street spent most of its early history in the late 1800s as an industrial roadway in Inman Park. The street’s namesake, Frederick Krog, opened the Atlanta Stove Works factory (now Krog Street Market) on the corridor in 1889. Because of Inman Park’s reputation as a wealthy suburb and proximity to railroad lines and downtown, other factories and storefronts agglomerated in the area. Across the railroad was the close, but separated, Cabbagetown neighborhood. There, the towering Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill (now the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts) operated in the same time frame as the Stove Works factory. Demand for working-class and company-owned housing stock in the two neighborhoods increased as factory employees grew in numbers. Through this, these areas began to develop the character that is still observable in their built environment

Concurrently, the demand for access to jobs by workers in growing suburbs nearby rose. A link between the immediate areas north and south of the railroad became more necessary for the workers and the companies who wanted to increase their workforce. In response to the demand, in 1912, CSX constructed an underpass that connected Dekalb Avenue in Inman Park to Wylie Street in Cabbagetown. The tunnel has sustained itself as the only direct connection for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians traveling between the two neighborhoods since.

The Fulton Cotton Mill and the Stove Works factory were both decommissioned in 1978 and 1987, respectively. These closures induced a massive economic decline in these neighborhoods, amidst similar circumstances in other parts of Atlanta.

During the late 60s to late 80s, residents took notice of the graffiti that proliferated in the tunnel. It was discouraged and even viewed as an indicator of a criminal element moving into the neighborhood. In the early 2000s, neighborhood officials pledged to allow graffiti in the tunnel after a general acceptance of this form of creative expression. This acceptance could be attributed to the value placed on art and aesthetics by new residents, or because older residents were tired of painting over the graffiti. The “ordinance” was a general agreement to allow 24/7 access to Krog for artists, as long as they are respectful to the residents. Neither the Atlanta Police Department nor CSX, which still owns the tunnel, had approved this rule. As such, its legality is ambiguous. Nonetheless, the tunnel has been used in this fashion for over 20 years now. There have been limited and unsuccessful attempts to halt these activities. In those 20 years, it has grown to become one of the most well-known legal graffiti walls in the U.S. and an active testament to the value of civic creativity.

Krog Street News: Using the archive to gauge community reaction to current events

I have been part of the Krog Codex project for about a year and have been most intrigued by watching how current events are discussed in the tunnel. For example, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February this year, Krog Tunnel graffiti artists responded a few weeks later.

February 26,2022: Pillar 7 (pictured above) and Pillar 1 (below) is what the tunnel looked like before people’s response regarding the War on Ukraine.
February 11, 2022: Pillar 1
March 7, 2022: Pillar 7: Pictured above shows “Fuck Putin” written across the wall in yellow and blue colors representing Ukraine’s flag.
March 11,2022: Pillar 1: Another representation of Ukraine’s flag shows a hand with “Help” written above it.

Eventually, by April 16, 2022, most of the Anti-Putin graffiti disappeared, and the tunnel returned to its typical graffiti drawings such as:

April 16, 2022: Pillar 7 pictured above and Pillar 1 (below) shows the tunnel after Anti-Putin fervor.
September 2, 2022: Pillar 1

On June 24, 2022, The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, jeopardizing women’s fundamental right to bodily autonomy. The tunnel was a place of free artistic discourse; the issue was hotly debated shortly after the Court’s decision.

In the picture above one can see the writing in red saying “Make Abortion Legal” while the columns with black backgrounds cover a pro-abortion flyer saying “Support Life”.

Although a majority of the art in the tunnel is paint based, some artists chose different media for their work such as wheat paste and stickers. The conversation about Roe gradually declined between June and September. The issue resurfaced in mid-October at the beginning of the early voting.

Above shows an example of stickering.

One of the most eye-catching and memorable works during my field collection was a micro-mural wheat paste depicting of Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale is used as a comparison to recent events and a reflection for those who see it. 

The wheat paste was placed on a bare wall, where the layers of spray paint had been excavated. This allowed for the posting to stick easier and make a bolder statement. Another notable feature regarding the artwork is the tag left behind. Generally speaking, graffiti artists prefer anonymity considering the activity’s illegal roots. For this specific piece, the artist stood by their art and statement.

Due to the large number of visitors that go to the tunnel, it is not surprising to find political, social, and cultural references in the artwork. One of the most fascinating aspects of the field collection of the Codex is the unpredictability of never knowing what art you may see in the tunnel.