Walking home on Saturday I passed crowd of people gathered around a man on the Church Street sidewalk.
I stopped to join them.
Gary Simpson-cox, wearing a tee-shirt and long shorts, sat cross-legged behind paintings laid out in front of him like tarot cards. Dried paint caked his knees. The air smelled of burning gasoline. Gary looked at his work with theatrical intensity, like a movie doctor judging the complexity of a surgery.
After studying the problem for a moment, he warned the onlookers, moms with their arms around their babies, to step back.
A Decatur Police Officer standing in the background waited and watched.
Gary rattled the can of spray paint, pushed the nozzle with his thumb and put it to a lighter. The flame sounded like thunder. He lit a second can from the first. A puff of heat warmed my hands and cheeks. I backed up a few more steps.
Gary put the two cans together and waved their dueling fires over one of the paintings for about seven seconds. The flames vanished and he set the cans down. He studied his creation before handing it over to a customer.
I began filming this around the time I heard someone say “fire.” I was about to leave when I noticed that the police officer had pulled the artist aside.
The officer spoke in a low voice, but I did catch him saying something about permitting and warning Gary about the possibility of burning down nearby businesses. The artist nodded, said it was all a misunderstanding and began packing up his things.
Gary apologized to the crowd.
“Now I’m going to get a citation,” he said as he tried to gather his things as quickly as he could.
A grateful onlooker handed Gary some money for his trouble. As he took the folded bill and stuffed it in his pocket, I saw him smile for the first time since I set eyes on him.
I left my contact information with Gary and caught up with him on Sunday. I asked him whether he cared if I posted the video or not, and he said he would be glad if I did. He thinks street artists get a bad rap and thought Decatur would be more supportive.
“It does upset me. A town that has graffiti on its walls, why can’t they support a street artist,” Gary said. “I’ve seen so many street artists, dancers, musicians, people who set up with an easel and paint. They allow other people to do that, but they don’t allow someone who has a different medium.”
Gary said the officer told him he couldn’t sell his art or take donations. He said officer treated him fairly and did not issue a citation.
Gary said he’s been working in “speed spray-painting” for about 11 months. He told me he has struggled with homelessness. Gary picked up the spray paint cans on a whim after his uncle told him about spray paint artists he’d seen on the streets of Puerto Rico.
Speed spray-painting is now Gary’s primary source of income. He said his encounter with Decatur Police reminded him of a recent incident in Atlanta. Violinist Johnny Arco spent five days in jail after he was arrested for playing at the Five Points MARTA station. Police charged Arco with panhandling.
Gary promised he’d continue working on his craft, though he wasn’t quite sure how he could continue in Decatur without running afoul of Decatur Police.
“I’m not going to let it get me down,” Gary told me. “I’m not sure how I’m going do it, but I’m not going to stop because I love what I do. If you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
You can check out more of Gary’s artwork by clicking here.