Jake Cook, GPB News
Slip through the glass doors at the bottom of a large staircase on Alabama Street in Atlanta, and you’ll find something unexpected. What looks like a mall — and, until recent years, was a mall — now serves as a grassroots hub for a burgeoning Atlanta arts scene.
The storefronts of the once-defunct shopping center known as Underground Atlanta were formerly retail shops. These days, instead of stores, visitors to Underground can hop around to eight different art galleries and experience concerts and parties curated by a diverse batch of Atlanta artists.
There’s also food and libations available, courtesy of some new bars and restaurants, and a rotating contingent of food trucks. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also an LGBTQ-focused dance club, a comedy theater, and legendary Atlanta music venue The Masquerade, which relocated there in 2016.
One of the artists involved in Underground Atlanta’s revitalization is greater Chicagoland area transplant and sculptor Mike Stasny. He’s the owner and operator of Mom Said Its Fine, a studio/gallery/music venue in the heart of Underground.
Stasny, along with set designer Marina Skye, was recently named one of the new creative directors of Underground Atlanta by Lalani Ventures, the entertainment arm of Billionaires Funding Group, the private investment firm which purchased Underground Atlanta in 2020.
The experience of walking into Mom Said Its Fine is unique. It’s like entering Stasny’s mind itself. Besides the overall junky aesthetic, the artwork adorning the walls and ceiling is decidedly macabre: animal carcasses and decay are a recurring theme throughout. Stasny attributes this to his family’s background in taxidermy.
“It’s my version of boyish escapism, approximately between the ages of 11 and 14, now housed in a 42-year-old body.” Stasny said.
Fires and destruction have plagued Underground Atlanta since its inception. Its storied history is emblematic of the resilient spirit of the city itself.
Originally built during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, its construction was centered around The Gulch, the historic railroad center once envisioned as a site of major development. The Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, which stands at Underground Atlanta’s Central Avenue entrance, is the oldest building in downtown Atlanta. It was built in 1869, five years after the original was destroyed by Gen. Sherman’s troops.
In the following century-and-a-half, the property where Underground sits has gone through countless transformations. In the 1960s, the center enjoyed a new lease on life as a bustling entertainment and retail district when two Georgia Tech graduates, Steven H. Fuller Jr. and Jack R. Patterson, devised a plan to reopen it. After forming Underground Atlanta Inc., they began leasing its buildings as bars and other shops, and invested $10 million into its restoration.
Underground Atlanta was officially opened in 1969.
Since then, its storefronts have housed a fascinating variety of shops, including a wax museum and a souvenir shop owned by Georgia governor and staunch segregationist Lester Maddox.
In its long history, Underground Atlanta has gone through extended periods of dormancy. In 1992, the center was badly damaged after riots stemming from the Rodney King trial verdicts. There was a brief burst of renewed interest during the 1996 Olympic Games.
Over the years, many Atlanta mayors have made efforts to try to keep Underground afloat. In 2004, the city passed an ordinance to allow bars in the complex to stay open and serve drinks until 4 a.m. Even then, it had trouble drawing consistent patronage, until it was eventually shuttered in 2016.
By the time Mike Stasny arrived in Atlanta, the old version of Underground was on its last legs.
“I was a flight attendant for a number of years,” he said. “So approximately 25 years ago, I came here just to check it out. I moved here officially 10 years ago thinking that, ‘OK, Underground is a mall.’ But there was no reason for me to come here until a good friend of mine, Kris Pilcher, who was the original creative director here, said, ‘Maybe you want to check out this empty, weird space.’”
Stasny moved his studio into Underground in 2021, at the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, as the first artist-resident of the new Underground Atlanta experiment.
“It turned out mutually beneficial.” He said. “The leasing officer in general liked what we were coming up with. So I pretty much stuck around.”
Stasny views helping renew Underground Atlanta as another extension of his multi-disciplinary artistic ambition.
“Creative space development makes a space that’s really either nothing or what one could consider less than nothing, into just enough.” Stasny said. “It’s showing new love to something that’s forgotten or old. And by showing off what it is that I’m into, others can join me and hopefully be inspired.”
Jamie Shelton is the lead singer of Atlanta gothic metal band Sister Sleep. Shelton grew up in metro Atlanta, and once shared a similarly indifferent opinion of Underground with Stasny.
“Until the Masquerade moved here — that’s when I really started going to Underground and adjacent areas.” Shelton said.
On an appropriately cold and dreary night, Sister Sleep and a video crew, along with a small group of Stasny’s gallery employees, set up to film a music video for one of the singles from the band called “The Venom You Spit.”
Shelton said one of the things that drew them to the venue Mom Said It’s Fine was the space having similar artistic undertones to their band.
“There’s definitely some avant-garde, counterculture vibes to it,” Shelton said. “Some of the artwork has a dark, alternative, horror kind of theme, which is a lot of what our band does. I’m a huge horror movie fan. We all are.”
It’s in this spirit of artistic collaboration that Mike Stasny and others hope to revive Underground Atlanta for good, and help it fulfill its potential as both a creative headquarters for independent artists and a hotspot for Atlanta nightlife.
To Stasny, it’s not only about making something out of nothing. It’s part of a collaborative vision, very much in line with his creative ethos.
As he puts it, “It’s taking something that was maybe not cared for before and making it into something that could be of value, just through love.”
You can learn more about Underground Atlanta and see all the upcoming events there at UndergroundATL.com.
This story comes to the Peachtree Gazette through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.