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Aldermen Sat May 16 2009

Alderman Destroys Public Art

Could this be just another WTF moment featuring another Chicago alderman?

When Humberto Angeles woke up on Thursday morning, he heard a truck outside his Bridgeport apartment. He looked out the window and saw the city's graffiti blasters painting a brick wall across the street. They covered over a mural that Angeles says he rather liked.

ANGELES: What I got from it, it was just a mural for peace. That's what I got out of it. Peace.

The mural was a painting of three Chicago Police Department blue light camera's that you see on light posts in high crime areas. The Chicago Police logo is on the cameras but then the artist also painted Jesus on one post, a deer head on another, and a skull on the third camera. What the mural is supposed to mean is anyone's guess. Angeles agrees that it's a rather inscrutable work of art but he liked it and he says he feels bad for the artist.

So why did Ald. Ed Balcer decided to blast this mural out of existence?

11th ward alderman James Balcer says he called in the graffiti blasters because the owner of the building never got a permit for the mural. He says he got 3 or 4 complaints from residents. He says he got some from police too and he says he agreed that the piece was distasteful.

BALCER: You know I don't know if there was hidden gang meaning behind it with the cross, with the skull, with the deer, with the police camera's. Was there something anti-police about it? I don't know what's in his mind. That's how I viewed it.

But wait, isn't this wall on private property? Why should he just up and overthink the owner of this property and just decide that he needed to violate the property owner's rights by painting his building without permission?

A spokesman for Chicago's buildings department says section 13 25 50 of the City Code requires building owners to have a permit for painted signage or to alter or repair painted signage on a building. But a spokesperson for the city's law department says there's no permit necessary for a mural on the side of a private building as long as it's not an advertisement and as long as the property owner has given their permission.

But they did it anyway even with the city code that might back the owner of this property owner up, but what about the artist:

Gabriel Villa is the artist who spent much of the last two weeks working on the mural. He says he even took a week off work to do it.

VILLA: It's in a really good area in terms of visibility so you get to see if from a good distance.

Villa did the work as part of a local art festival. The mural itself was on private property, on a wall owned by the mother of a festival organizer. Villa says several Chicago Police officers approached him about the work while he painted. He thinks they may have been offended but he says the painting doesn't have an anti-police message.

VILLA: This mural was not a quiz. A lot of contemporary art tries, you know it tries to baffle you, or tries to confuse you, or kind of flip things on its head. I wasn't asking anything.

Should it be easy to remove artwork only because you don't like it? I understand that some art might offend people. At the same time it almost reeks of censorship.

Should we be concerned about how we respond to it? Should we be concerned that there are those in power who might be willing to trample on the rights of private property owners because they don't like the work?

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R.A. Stewart / May 22, 2009 12:46 PM

Certainly we should be concerned. And we should be concerned that our city is run by power-mad idiots who are bound by no accountability whatever.

I believe this situation has been resolved the Chicago way: the people who were least at fault have been punished (the artist's work is destroyed, and the poor Streets & San schmo who did the deed lest he lose his job for disobeying an alderman's order has been suspended); while the guy who ordered the crime, which it does seem to have been, collects his fat paycheck and contentedly awaits re-election.

I wonder, when an ordinary, cloutless citizen of Balcer's ward reports actual graffiti on their property, how long do you suppose they have to wait, and how many calls do they have to make, before it's removed?

CJ Laity / May 22, 2009 6:41 PM

You don't even need a course in Art 101 to see that the images of death on the police cameras symbolizes the death of civil liberties. Only a really, and I mean REALLY ignorant person would take those symbols so literally as to be threatened by them, or even if they are to be taken literally, only a complete racists believes death only comes by the hands of some fantasy Mexican gang that is going to be inspired by a work of art to go out and kill some people. Vote that Alderman out of office. That's all there is to it. We're pretty damn tired of the city strying to sterilize neighborhood culture simply for the slight hope of Olympics two thousand and whatever.

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