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Is it a ship? What the heck is that thing on the Atlanta BeltLine?

Updated: Mar 15

A female figurehead looks out over Fourth Ward Skate Park with the Midtown Atlanta skyline in the distance
Mel Chin's sculpture, called Wake, overlooks the Fourth Ward Skatepark and the Midtown Atlanta skyline

If you've been on the Atlanta BeltLine's Eastside Trail lately, you might have noticed what appears to be a shipwreck.

A giant wooden lady overlooks the Fourth Ward Skate Park, with a snippet of the Midtown skyline on the horizon.

You wouldn't be alone if you asked, "What in the world is that?" Is it a ship masthead? A whale? An opera singer?

OK, pretty sure you wouldn't have guessed opera singer. Or that this 21-foot-tall woman originally stood in the middle of Times Square for two months in 2018, as crowds gathered and climbed her gills for photo opps.

But after voyages to North Carolina and Texas, she's been anchored on the BeltLine - as part of the acclaimed Art on the Atlanta BeltLine - where she supposedly breathes and moves her head on occasion. I've tried to witness it myself without any luck.

Behind her trails what appears to be whale bones, or a shipwreck. In fact, it's a bit of both.

Wake by Artist Mel Chin

The sculpture is called Wake, and its creator is Mel Chin, an artist, filmmaker and environmentalist whose conceptual work tries to provoke conversation around social issues.

A female figurehead overlooking a pond in Atlanta's Fourth Ward Skatepark
Mel Chin's shipwreck becomes a ship when Fourth Ward Skatepark turns into a pond after heavy rains

In this case, Wake portrays Jenny Lind, a popular opera singer from the 1800s, whom you might have seen featured in the film The Greatest Showman. Originally from Sweden, Jenny was reportedly born into poverty but sang so beautifully as a child that Queen Victoria threw flowers at her feet. She became a renowned opera singer known as the Swedish Nightingale.

At the height of her popularity in the 1850s, Jenny toured the U.S. with the backing of P.T. Barnum, of circus fame. She was so adored that the clipper ship USS Nightingale was named after her, and its masthead fashioned in her likeness. The Nightingale was used for many things - cargo, passengers, Arctic exploration, as a Union naval warship blockading the Confederacy... but also had a dark reputation as a slave trader.

And that's where the concept meets social issues. On the Atlanta BeltLine, Jenny is pointed toward the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr. on Auburn Avenue. In New York, she was touted as a symbol of entertainment mass marketing - Jenny was known as America's first superstar - and climate change, with virtual reality headsets showing a flooded Times Square and Jenny sailing down Broadway. Docked in the commerce capital of the world, the sculpture is a callout to the shipping industry and its impacts on rising sea levels, pollution and climate change. Not to mention the role that each of us has in the consumerism that drives the need for shipping.

All of this gives meaning to the artwork's title - the wake of a boat rocking everything in its path, as well as the gentle command to take notice of what's in front of us, and adjust course as needed.

Wooden whale bones
Mel Chin's Wake portrays both whale bones and a ship

In Atlanta, four hours from the ocean, the message may be slightly different, but it's still there. It can't be lost on anyone that the masthead of a slave ship is pointed toward the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. On another level, it's easy to think of the BeltLine as a river running through the heart of the city - the prime land alongside it is cheekily called beachfront property - and when it rains heavily, the Skatepark's field quickly fills into a pond. So there's not much simulation needed to see Mel Chin's vision. The shipwreck becomes a ship, with Jenny the megastar leading the way. And the rest of us in her wake, to deal with what Mel Chin meant for us to see.

Follow Mel Chin on Instagram.

Curious to learn more about public art on the Atlanta BeltLine? Join a Food and Street Art Tour, where you'll not only interact with vibrant street art, you'll discover Atlanta's thriving food scene by sampling popular neighborhood restaurants.

Author Nicole Gustin, Founder and CEO of BiteLines Atlanta Food Tours

An Atlanta native, Nicole Gustin is the Founder and CEO of BiteLines Atlanta Food Tours, which offers walking food tours on the Atlanta BeltLine. She considers the BeltLine her backyard, and is excited to see how Atlanta is reinventing itself. To sample some of Atlanta's best restaurants and street art, join our Food and Street Art Tour on the Atlanta BeltLine. Or bring your fur baby on Barks & Bites: Doggie Crawl on the BeltLine. Follow on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram @bitelinesatl.


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