On May 15th, a mural painted by artist Gabriel Villa was destroyed when the City of Chicago had their Graffiti Blasters paint over it. The mural was on private property. The destruction was ordered by Alderman James Balcer. There is a good account of this with links to other news sites covering this situation by blogger Shannon Benine
, so I won’t reproduce what’s already been written.
I was out of the office for most of the day, so I couldn’t post the news about this that artist Robert Valadez emailed many of us. I did want to share some interesting items of note.
According to some news accounts, Alderman Balcer either inferred or stated that Chicago Police Officers did not like the mural. As many of you know, Mr. Novio is a Chicago Police Officer. As we were having dinner Saturday night, I asked him what he thought of the mural. He commented that the article said that the artist wanted his work to be controversial, and he thought that this was accomplished by his art. Mr. Novio also reiterated that you don’t need a permit to paint a mural on private property, and that when the Graffiti Blasters show up, they are supposed to have the permission of the building owners before they remove any “graffiti.”
I asked him about the symbolism of the deer head, the Crucifixion and the skull, and he gave me a funny look, the kind that said, ‘you know Mexican neighborhoods!‘ We both agreed that the skull, or death, is obvious since the barrios have long had their problems with shootings and other murders which often plague higher crime areas. Then there is Crucifixion and Mexican Catholics, but what else needs to be said here? Mr. Novio commented in Mexico there are brands of Tequilla that use the deer head as part of their branding. As for the cameras, they tend to plague high crime areas and are ubiquitous in many areas.
I asked Mr. Novio if, as a Police Officer, did the mural offend him. He said, “No, it’s art, and it’s an expression of art. Besides, it’s the (depicts) the neighborhood (the barrios).”
When I told him that many of the articles inferred or stated that Alderman Balcer was responding to complaints by the Police, Mr. Novio, who is a Sargent in the CPD, said, “That’s bullshit — this is a First Amendment issue and the Police would stay away from something like that — remember there was a big legal case about the CPD and First Amendment issues?” Well, actually I didn’t so over dinner he gave me a refresher course.
He said that no Chicago Police Officer in their right mind would get involved in the suppression of First Amendment Rights. When an student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, David Nelson, had a painting displayed that showed then Mayor Harold Washington in ladies lingerie (Mirth and Girth), several Chicago Alderman demanded that the painting be taken down and with the help of the then Police Superintendent, an Officer was ordered to take the painting into custody. In 1994 the City of Chicago settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $95,000 in attorney’s fees to Nelson’s lawyer.
The case that my friend was referring to was a lawsuit filed on November 13, 1974 that was settled in the 1980s (Alliance to End Repression v. City of Chicago). The original defendants included the commanders of the CPD Intelligence Division. According to the Case Study by Lim, Rhoades and Shorr, on April 8, 1982 the City of Chicago Settlement was issued. “The restrictions of the settlement were imposed against any agent or agency of the City of Chicago. The settlement explicitly states that “investigative activity toward First Amendment conduct is entirely prohibited except in four specific types of investigations: criminal, dignitary protection, public gathering and regulatory investigations.”
Mr. Novio told me that in the case of criminal investigations related to First Amendment situations, they have 24 consecutive hours to investigate and determine there is something there; if not, it is dropped.
So one may infer that by brown washing a mural created on private property, the Alderman broke a number of laws and has possibly opened our City to a potential lawsuit or lawsuits. Shouldn’t the City Government look for ways to bring revenue in, not open the door to pouring revenue out?
Links related to this post:
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has a fascinating website entitled, “Art on Trial,” that discusses the case involving artist David Nelson and the City of Chicago.
For a look at the work of artist Gabriel Villa, and view photos of his murals which are in institutions throughout the City of Chicago, check out the section: public works.
To read a well laid out backgrounder on Case Study of Alliance to End Repression v City of Chicago, visit the Chicago Kent College of Law IIT website.