Lee Arnett turns his small-town Alabama dreams into reality as he works his way into the Atlanta art scene spotlight
STORY: Jodi Cash | PHOTO: Stephen Payne
After growing up in Sylacauga, Alabama, Lee Arnett knew that his life as an artist would require moving to a city. In his small, Talladega County hometown, there were no art museums. There were no galleries. There were no art classes in school.
But Arnett was born to make art. He would scribble fanatically from the age his hand could hold a crayon. As a small child, he even painted on the walls of his family home. And in his teenage years, his wall painting evolved into graffiti on the streets of nearby Birmingham.
“It was very out of the norm, especially for a boy, to want to be an artist in a small, conservative town,” Arnett says. But the impulse to make art continued to burgeon within him, encouraged by his mother, who always recognized his potential—seeing her son as so much more than a teenager with an affinity for graffiti.
He moved to Atlanta in 2010 to attend The Art Institute, and he quickly began to thrive. While still in school, he freelanced as a graphic designer and later launched a clothing line, LASATL, which features limited edition shirts, sweatshirts and hats.
And as Arnett’s network in Atlanta grew, so did his body of work. His paintings, once exclusively found on the street, made their way into galleries and fine art spaces. His confidence and artistic maturity, learned from Atlanta’s supportive artist community, became visible in his work. His first gallery show was at Mason Fine Art two years ago, which opened a whole hallway of new doors for him. Most recently, his paintings were featured in West Midtown’s prestigious Kai Lin Art gallery last spring as a part of the Fresh 2 Exhibition.
Kai Lin founder Yu-Kai Lin gave Arnett meaningful feedback. “He noticed whenever I stopped painting things that I thought other people would like, or that I wanted other people to like, and I started painted things from experiences that I’ve had,” Arnett says. “That was the turning point.”
Ironically, as Arnett has grown as an artist, moving between mediums, the cultural attitude toward street art has shifted. People have started to embrace his first love. “Finally, people are starting to understand graffiti and aerosol painting as a real art form and not just view it as vandalism. I think Atlanta is embracing that, and I think that’s huge. There are some artists who can do with aerosol what some master painters can’t do with a brush.”
This movement has also come along with opportunities for the young artist. He was commissioned to paint murals on the sides of Atlanta’s two gusto! restaurant locations, the first of which debuted in 2016. That lit a fire for Arnett, whose mural work has since been commissioned at GE offices in Miami and here in Atlanta.
“Trying to brighten the city, [to] brighten the world, is the main goal,” he says. “To see it kind of unfolding and happening is breathtaking.”
Arnett is preparing more paintings for a solo Atlanta show in October and November, and he plans to drop new cut and sew pieces for LASATL, which he’ll sell online this summer. As he moves forward, he hopes that his work will aptly represent the city that’s been so formative to his career. “I would love to be known as Lee Arnett from Atlanta,” he says. “I would love to make everyone proud.”