Public artworks have always inspired controversy. By existing in communal space, they convey ideas about local residents. When people disagree about what imagery best represents their neighborhood, trouble ensues. Murals are particularly good at sparking debate. Unfortunately disputes over the large scale paintings often reflect fierce, thinly-veiled class and racial anxieties.
A 2008 battle over a proposed mural in Philadelphia was particularly ugly. When the renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Program was commission to create a piece in the tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, a small group of elite residents raised a ruckus. Some opponents objected to the mural’s design, which featured construction workers assembling a sculpture of lady justice. These grumblings were quelled once the artist, Michael Webb, agreed to switch out the day laborers for less intimidating conservationists (I’m not kidding). Others opposed placing any mural in Rittenhouse Square. Murals have traditionally gone up in edgier parts of Philly and some residents feared that their upscale neighborhood might suddenly be associated with these locations.
The battle over the Rittenhouse Square mural eventually heated up to such a degree that the project was scrapped. Now a piece in the city of Prescott, Arizona is under attack. The “Go on Green” mural was designed to encourage methods of transportation that are friendly to the environment. The piece spreads across two walls outside the ethnically diverse Miller Valley Elementary School and depicts the faces of actual students. Sound harmless enough? The controversy stems from the artists’ decision to focus the mural around the image of a Hispanic child. Principal, Jeff Lane asked the painters to lighten the faces of the children depicted. (He claims that his concerns were about how the faces were shaded – not about the children’s ethnicity). Then City Councilman and radio host, Steve Blair got a hold of the story. The notion that an image of a little brown boy might be placed in a central location in his fair town proved too much for him to handle. Blair objected vehemently to the mural, saying “to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, ‘why?’” Perhaps someone should inform Mr. Blair that black and hispanic are not synonymous and that it’s generally a good idea to check one’s facts before spewing hate speech. Blair also suggested that the child’s ethnicity reflected “who’s President of the United States today.” Never would have seen that one coming. Blair was later fired from his job at the KYCA radio station for his comments.
What is even more shocking than the ignorant remarks of two misguided individuals is the despicable reaction of many community members to the mural. As the artists worked on the painting, assisted by a group of school children, they were periodically screamed at by passersby and called a number of racial epithets.
Murals are designed to unite communities, create beauty and celebrate common values. The horrific reaction to “Go on Green” makes a mockery of these noble intentions. One cannot help but wonder how this fallout is being interpreted by the children of Miller Valley Elementary, who learned at a young age that their faces are seen as an insult to their community.