The disquieting statistics about HIV in Atlanta, which in 2017 had the third-highest HIV diagnosis rate among all U.S. metropolitan areas, have popularized a perception of the city as being full of the walking dead. However, Atlanta is home to HIV-positive lawyers, executives, government workers, and artists. And as the city was hosting the largest and liveliest Black LGBT Pride on the planet during Labor Day weekend, a new mural was unveiled to re-frame how residents understand HIV.
"Living with HIV, I know for sure my life is not gloomy," said Ajmal Millar, one of five queer artists of color who were tapped by Living Walls -- an Atlanta nonprofit that uses public art to stimulate ideas and conversations about social issues -- to create a mural as part of the "Start Talking. Stop HIV." campaign. The massive artwork spans an overpass on the west side of the Atlanta BeltLine, an in-progress municipal project that is converting a 20-mile loop of unused train tracks into a recreational path dotted with housing, retail, and public art. The piece that Millar dubs "Transformation Tunnel" sits in the heart of a zip code -- 30310 -- that is among the most impacted by HIV in Atlanta. It boldly proclaims, "We Are All Thriving With HIV!"
"This is not the same era as the 1980s, or the 1990s, or even the 2000s," said Millar, who tested positive for HIV more than a decade ago. "People are living -- it's not a death sentence, and we don't have to continue the stigma. We can change the narrative by changing our own mindset."
Both the content and the location of the mural are intended to be provocative, said Millar, who envisions friends and families walking along the BeltLine and the artwork prompting conversations that otherwise might not occur.
"It's a place that I'm hoping people will be able to find some kind of solace and find an opportunity to disclose their HIV status if they've been having difficulty doing so," Millar said. "I believe that you have to hold a mirror up to really see what's going on in your reflection. I think the community will start to see more of a change if they start to have conversations around this, versus them acting like it doesn't exist."
Living Walls convened more than a half dozen discussion panels throughout Atlanta to solicit input about the mural's message, and to recruit Millar and fellow artists John Burnette, Lisette Correa, Maite Nazario, and Ash Walsh.
The major theme that arose from those community talks was the need to end stigma around the disease, which causes many to cope with the illness in silence and solitude. At the August 31 reveal ceremony for the mural, several artists and organizers spoke about friends who were too ashamed to reach out for help.
Walsh dedicated his section of the mural -- two mystical figures on the interior columns of the overpass -- to his best friend, who recently disclosed his HIV-positive status after struggling to believe that he would be supported by loved ones. Correa was chosen as a muralist two months after losing a close friend to HIV-related causes, and she paid homage to him and the figures who helped her understand herself as a young queer person in New York's ballroom scene.
"My celebration of coming out was around trans women and drag queens, [and] I've never seen them highlighted when it comes to art that has to do with HIV," said Correa, whose contributions to the mural include folks voguing and a drag queen holding a fan that reads, "Cheers Queers."
"For me, it was really important to highlight where we celebrate life as queer people, and that happens in the clubs," Correa said. "That's where we all come together, is in the nightlife scene, and it's kind of like our church -- it's our way of getting confidence, it's our way of building love, building families, our chosen families."
With creative roots in Caribbean carnival costumes and ballroom illusions, Millar also infused his portions of the mural with the heartbeat of the nightclub, drawing inspiration from a Friday night set by DJ Sedrick at Atlanta's Club Mixx.
"If we're doing this whole club scene, the DJ is the god," Millar said. "Honestly, he saved a lot of people's lives throughout time. At the height of the HIV epidemic, people were happy and dancing. I'm mean, they weren't ignorant to what was going on, but at least it gave them a moment to be free and liberated."
Burnette painted blooming flowers and soaring birds to evoke flourishing life, and he told those attending the unveiling ceremony that his HIV diagnosis was the opposite of a death sentence.
"HIV gave me life, because I no longer just want to live, I want to thrive," Burnette said.
The mural is also positioned at the intersection of Atlanta's past and present, as the S.W.A.T.S. (South West Atlanta Too Strong) that was celebrated in '90s hip hop undergoes dramatic gentrification. For as much excitement as the BeltLine has generated among residents, city officials, and businesses in Atlanta, it has thus far been a harbinger of overpriced housing and displacement of longtime residents, including queer folks and African Americans -- two groups most affected by the HIV epidemic.
"It was a really beautiful experience being able to work with other queer people of color on a mural that was really important to us and to our individual communities," said Nazario, who painted clouds as pedestals for figures such as an elderly Latinx lesbian and a voguing black gay man proclaiming, "Positively Beautiful!" "We worked so hard and put so much effort into trying to be able to represent everyone and tell the story right, because it is a story that has been going on for so many years and that is still going on today."
The inclusion of queer art on Atlanta's premiere civic development is overdue, said Millar, who hopes the mural will become a permanent monument amid changing Atlanta.
"Our community is absolutely deserving of some recognition, and we also need to realize that we can directly affect change in our community by seeing more of us doing it," said Millar, who noted that BeltLine officials have indicated the mural can remain for as long as it is maintained and refreshed.
On one of the pillars of the overpass, Millar issued a charge to his city:
Atlanta we are thriving and creating lives full of value daily
Built on the shoulders of our queer ancestors and the HIV pioneers who paved the way
Our truth is actualized as a collective everytime we walk, run, dance, sing, grow and praise to the rhythm of our own beat
Welcome to the Transformation Tunnel, a safe space where all of HIV's gloomy past transforms into a beautiful bouquet of love and light, transcending fear and darkness.
With this space, we vow to congregate in the name of deeper love, to preserve in the name of legacy and to thrive in the name of making our marks on the world!