Artist Ronnie Land grew up in the wetlands of Jacksonville, Florida, but he said he gravitated toward Atlanta—there was something about its soul that he fell in love with.
“I was coming up here and pulling pranks and doing pop-up shows in the mid-80s,” Ronnie, who professionally goes by “R.Land,” says. “I felt instantly connected with Atlanta. It’s the center of the region and a center of the world. It’s a cultural refugee center for anybody who wants to come here for opportunity.”
He moved to Atlanta in the 90s, and his deep love for “the city too busy to hate” was reaffirmed. But he started to watch the local, homegrown feel of this city start to lose the very soul that brought him to his new home in the first place.
“It looked like there were hints of it becoming… more of a commercial-type development, and it was something that had long since happened outside of the Perimeter,” says R.Land, whose art has been filling streets, murals and galleries all over the country for the past three decades. “The local businesses, bars, restaurants and intown culture—the neighborhoods of Atlanta were at the core of all of that.”
Atlanta’s “soul was under siege,” he says. So, R.Land created a now iconic image of praying hands clasped together. This art piece displayed the words “Pray for ATL” printed below the hands in what was a desperate plea to the community to take back what Atlanta was on the brink of losing. Those giant, blue-print posters sat in a studio in Inman Park for about two years, he says.
“One night in 2004, I put one up on the overpass at Moreland and DeKalb Avenue,” he says. “That stayed there for I don’t know how many years. It kind of became a viral thing in its own right after that.”
The love for this image grew quickly, and it took on a life of its own. He started creating new prints and murals and it was branded for T-shirts and other merchandise. The image was ambiguous enough that each person who saw it interpreted it in their own way.
“The original idea was not necessarily how everybody took it,” R.Land says with a laugh. “It means different things to different people. It just becomes an identifier to represent our wonderful city.”
Now, years later, the city is again under attack—while that may seem dramatic, it’s not entirely too far off. About two weeks into March, major cities across the country began shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and schools in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of March 25, the infectious disease, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 70,000 people nationwide and killed more than 1,000.
Businesses shut down in Atlanta and its surrounding communities, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on March 24 issued a “stay-at-home” order for the next 14 days.
Social distancing guidelines were encouraged at the federal, state and local levels. One of the best ways—outside of isolation—to prevent the spread of disease, is to wash your hands frequently, experts say.
As the information of the virus spread to R.Land, the mental image of two hands clasped together in soapy water inspired him.
It was obvious what he had to do.
‘I DIDN’T EXPECT ANYTHING TO COME FROM IT’
R.Land went back to his studio in Inman Park and looked at that “Pray for ATL” design.
He then slightly altered the blue hands with soapy bubbles lathered up on the tips of its fingers, and the print below read “Wash for ATL”
“You start hearing all the language in the media and how it’s so important to keep your hands clean—there’s more to do than wash your hands— but it just seemed so obvious,” R.Land says. “It was a perfect sort of pivot that is another idea akin to this. I didn’t expect anything to come from it at all, but after the first 24 hours there was no question.”
He posted the image to his Instagram and within in minutes it exploded. It caught fire within the hour, and he said it had “more response than anything [he] had ever posted.”
People kept asking him to put the image on a T-shirt, print or anything else. They wanted to buy it and display it. The emails came flooding in. But then he got an email from a representative at United Way of Greater Atlanta asking about a possible collaboration.
“I have always been familiar with United Way and had a great respect for the organization,” R.Land says. “I had been inundated with emails and Instagram messages, but then I got an email from Bill Campbell, and his message resonated more with me. I thought about how [United Way] worked and would have power in a broader way to get people help in the smallest amount of time. I thought this would be the fastest way to help the most people.”
The design was fit to T-shirts, stickers and coffee mugs with portions of each purchase going to United Way and Community Foundation’s Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. R.Land and Bang-On Custom T-shirts in Little Five Points have collaborated with United Way of Greater Atlanta to design and print the T-shirts, donating $10 from each T-shirt sold.
The Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund provides immediate support to those most vulnerable to the economic and health-related issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic such as help with emergency assistance, health services and additional critical needs such as childcare and food.
You can donate now to the fund, but if you or anyone you know needs immediate assistance, you can contact United Way’s 2-1-1 Contact Center.
The “Pray for ATL” design is something R.Land says has been continuous throughout his life, and it was exciting to have the opportunity to collaborate on this scale to help people in this city who needed it most.
“I want to see this max out and be the best it can be so we can help in the best way we can,” R. Land says.