Feline Phenom

By Kathleen Poe Ross

When the city came to a snowy standstill for a week in January 2011, a portly, three-legged cat with a heart on its chest hit the streets. The kitty first appeared as an outsized graffiti tag, spray-painted on walls and bridges in neighborhoods like Candler Park and Cabbagetown alongside the word “catlanta.”

The artist behind this character, a 2010 studio art graduate, had just launched Atlanta’s newest — and cutest — street art phenomenon.

Catlanta (B.A. ’10), as both he and his work are known, soon abandoned the spray paint can for a more neighborhood-friendly medium. Using leftover cardboard and sheets of magnet, he cut out and painted smaller versions of the cartoon cat and dropped them around town as free objets d’art to be found. When he shared photos of these kittens in the field on Flickr and Twitter, he unwittingly triggered a citywide scavenger hunt.

“I never really thought that people would even want [the kittens],” says the 24-year-old artist, who remains anonymous to the general public. “The first time I [posted photos], people went out and looked for them, and it sort of just built from there.”

Catlanta now has a following nearly 10,000 strong on Facebook and Twitter; he’s been written up by CNN.com; and his prized pieces have been hunted all over Georgia and from Texas to Maine. What began as a release from workaday drudgery nearly two years ago has become a full-time job. Catlanta estimates he spends anywhere from 30 to 60 hours each week, supported by occasional t-shirt sales and commission work, creating kittens to hide across Atlanta.

“The response has just been crazy,” Catlanta says. “I think it’s pushed me to be a better artist and really practice techniques and styles. I’ve become much more comfortable with my own abilities.”

The cats have, accordingly, grown more elaborate over time. Catlanta now uses donated plywood that he cuts with a scroll saw as his base material. Shapes and designs can vary, and current events, themes or partnerships — think Dragon*Con, ‘90s cartoons or Zoo Atlanta — often inspire special litters of googley-eyed kittens.

“It’s goofy and silly and fun,” Catlanta says of his work, “but it’s also a way for me to get people that don’t really have an interest in art or haven’t been out to the galleries to become involved with the city.”

It might come as a surprise that there is serious art theory behind this playful project. Catlanta values craftsmanship over concept and tries to think outside the canvas — something he says he learned in an installation art class at GSU. He also challenges conventional notions of street art by partnering with Atlanta institutions like Zoo Atlanta or the High Museum of Art.

Indeed, there is more to Catlanta than meets the eye — and in more ways than one. “Actually,” he admits, “I’m a bit more of a dog person.”