Photo by David Van Patten.
Should city officials and property owners be held responsible to inform the public before a mural is taken down, whether it was created by a local artist or not? And despite the fact that it’s up to the property owner whether the mural is preserved or not? When does a mural become a cultural asset, especially if it was created as a commercial venture?
Such are a few of the questions that have risen to the surface since local artist Dave Van Patten posted on Facebook earlier this week his, at first, angered response to the painting over of Pow! Wow! Worldwide founder Jasper Wong’s mural, Do Good Things, once visible on the exterior wall of the Art Exchange facing Long Beach Boulevard.
Many who joined the discussion seemed outraged that ARTX had chosen to paint over the mural, and a little confused as to when and why the piece was painted in the first place.
Former Pow! Wow! Long Beach director John Hall confirmed the mural was not painted during the 2015 or 2016 street art festivals, stating that it was completed after the inaugural Pow! Wow! Long Beach.
If the mural had been done as part of Pow! Wow! Long Beach, and while ARTX was still a Redevelopment Agency parcel owned by the city, the city’s Economic and Property Development Department would have issued a right of entry permit to allow the mural to be painted on a city building, said John Keisler, economic and property development director, who said the city was unable to locate a request to paint the building.
“There might also have been an agreement providing the owner to remove the mural at its discretion,” he said. “We were unable to locate a request or a right of entry permit for this particular mural, indicating that it was likely not an official PowWow mural.”
Executive Director of the Long Beach Museum of Art Ron Nelson, who sits on ARTX’s board, said the mural was okayed by the past board, but not the city.
[...]It never had any approval on the city’s part to do that, which everything in Pow! Wow! Has [...] and I think that’s what people think that it is, but it was a commercial venture,” said Nelson.
Nelson said he spoke with Wong about the issue, saying that the painting over of murals happens often, especially with Pow!Wow! Hawaii, where there’s a likelihood that murals from past festivals may be removed to make way for new ones, because they're running out of walls.
Photo by Asia Morris from Pow! Wow! 2015 of Benjie Escobar's mural.
Two public art pieces that were painted for Pow! Wow! Long Beach 2015, that have been removed and/or painted over, include FAFI’s installation formerly across the street from Fingerprints and Benji Escobar’s mural on the Edison building, once located in the alley between 1st Street and Broadway.
The removal of said artworks, especially FAFI’s piece, inspired an outraged response by some locals on social media, not unlike the removal of Wong’s piece. Local artists, directors of both the California Arts Council and the Arts Council for Long Beach, ARTX and Hall himself, entered the recent Facebook discussion.
Escobar’s mural was painted over because it was getting tagged, according to Hall, a decision made by the property owner. In place of the pastel-colored floating pizza slices now resides on Dragon76’s mural, painted during Pow! Wow! Long Beach 2016.
The FAFI installation was supposed to be temporary, said Hall, so when one of the property owners requested its removal, Pow! Wow! obliged.
Photo by Asia Morris from Pow! Wow! 2015 of FAFI's installation.
However, neither of those property owners are striving to “create a best-in-class art facility that will be a vibrant hub for professional artists, support K-12 arts education and implement cutting edge community arts programs,” to support “working artists and arts education through the development of a world-class visual arts center reflecting the rich cultural heritage of our community,” as reads the first two sentences of ARTX’s mission statement.
Director of California Arts Council Craig Watson commented on Van Patten’s post, stating: “What seems to be missing in this instance is a community process to engage in dialogue prior to the loss of a cultural asset.”
One question is whether the mural is reflective of Long Beach culture, despite the reason it was painted. Microsoft paid Wong to create the first mural (in January 2016) in a series of 17 murals around the world for their Designed on Surface collaboration, where the company set out to inspire “artists around the world to do great things” and in the process, market their Surface and tablet as a useful tool for creatives.
Clearly, the mural became a fixture of the area and took on a meaning to the surrounding community, despite the confusion surrounding the reason it was painted. Perhaps those who walked by it were indeed reminded to Do Great Things, perhaps those frequent passersby now own a Microsoft tablet or surface.
There’s no questioning Wong’s influence in Long Beach as the founder of Pow! Wow! Hawaii and one of the people who brought the internationally acclaimed mural festival here, where more than two dozen artworks have been painted on buildings throughout the city.
However, there’s also no question that the mural was not painted during either of the two Pow! Wow! festivals that have occurred in the city and the fact that Wong is not a local artist.
“A ‘mural,’ as defined by code, is a ‘graphical image, with or without text, that covers all or a portion of a building facade, and does not contain any advertising message, but consists of an artistic representation of a subject not for the purposes of creating a sign or billboard…’” according to Keisler.
Does Wong’s mural contain an advertising message? One signifier that the mural was painted for Microsoft’s campaign was its distinct blue border, not to mention the speech bubble containing Microsoft’s slogan, “Do Great Things.”
“[Wong] completed a mural in Long Beach this past fall to kick off a global series of murals that are all identifiable by a blue border and by his interpretation of what it means to Do Great Things,” stated Windows’ announcement.
ARTX Executive Director Jay Hong, said that the buffing and painting over of Wong’s piece was a necessary step, and also a part of the new board’s initiative to renovate and restore the 95-year-old structure.
Image taken from Google Street View of Zach Howard's mural on the ARTX gallery building from 2015.
Three other murals were also painted over in the process, one facing 3rd Street by artist Zach Howard, one on the back of the gallery building facing the parking lot, a collaboration by street artists Numak and La Plaga Invada, and a small piece around the corner on the door facing Elm Avenue by Levi Garson.
“We spent a lot of money upgrading the interior,” said Hong. “So the next phase is really to do the exterior, [which was] planned for next year. The building could not wait. So what we decided to do was paint it ourselves with volunteers.”
Hong said Wong’s mural was “heavily graffitied and vandalized,” said the paint was “peeling off” and questioned whether the wall had been properly prepared beforehand. He added that the mortar between the bricks had deteriorated, allowing water to leak into the studio inside, saying that they’re going to make those repairs, as well.
All of the ARTX buildings were given a fresh coat of paint as an “interim fix,” until a full exterior renovation can be completed, according to ARTX. When asked if ARTX had any plans for the now “blank” portions of wall, Hong said yes.
“We would like to keep that in suspense,” said Hong. “There is something that we’re planning, something fabulous, but we don’t want to announce that in light of all this.”
In addition to comments left by the Director of the California Arts Council, Griselda Suarez, executive director of the Arts Council for Long Beach, directed attention toward an upcoming Open Conversations on Creative Spaces meeting on Monday, February 27 at 5:00PM.
Inspired and in memory of the tragic and deadly fire of the “Ghost Ship,” a dilapidated building that provided a haven for Oakland’s arts community, Suarez commented, “Arts Council for Long Beach sees what happened with the Jasper Wong mural and Ghostship as intersectional. We invite our community to join us in a conversation and help us learn how we can make things better for our local artists.”
The council has also scheduled a discussion on Public Art for Thursday, March 23.
For more information about the February 27 discussion, visit the Facebook event page here.