A South Side Mural, Thought to Contain ‘Negative Images and Gang Symbols,’ Is Whitewashed

Why did a major new mural, commissioned by Theaster Gates’s new initiative, come down after only a month?

Photo: Nabiha Khan

A new mural commissioned by Theaster Gates’ Arts and Public Life initiative has been whitewashed at the request of Washington Park residents. (Chicago featured the mural in its August issue, “Art Alfresco.”) The painting contained a depiction of a young boy holding a toy gun and stuffed animal. Several days after the mural went up an 18-year-old man was murdered 4 blocks from the wall art, Cecilia Butler told Chicago. Butler is president pro-tem of the Washington Park Residents Advisory Council.

The mural “brought on a harsh feeling,” says Butler. “One of our first moves of action was to ask Mr. Theaster Gates to remove the mural because it was offensive to the broader community.” Gates did not respond directly to her group’s complaints, but several days later the art was painted over.

Reached for comment, Gates issued a joint statement with Alderman Pat Dowell. “Several complaints were made that the mural was offensive containing ‘negative images and gang symbols,’” they wrote. (See full text of their statement below.)

Photo: Nabiha Khan

The mural was the result of a 12-artist collaboration organized by En Masse, muralists from Montreal who were flown in to paint with students and local street artists, including Zero, the artist who painted the boy with gun. The mural was painted on a disused muffler shop owned by the University of Chicago at E. Garfield Blvd. and S. Martin Luther King Dr.

Several artists of the En Masse collective claim that Gates’ staff at the Washington Park Arts Incubator (founded by the University of Chicago in order to improve community relations) were not given the chance to defend or revise the offensive portions of their mural. Instead, the Arts incubator staff made the decision to buff the entire wall.

Zero, reached for comment, said he based his figure on a 1970s-era comic book character of a child with a bubble gun hiding from government-like authorities in Hazmat suits. Zero says his artwork design was approved before he painted it on the wall. His art often pays homage to classic comic book characters, which he revives in murals as a form of social commentary. He relates the plight of his boy-with-a-gun character to that of being a street artist, living in Chicago, and fighting a difficult system. He says the boy is “a lost soul, wandering, not knowing what to do, hiding, and alone. That’s how I feel in my own right. Art is a tough game to be in,” he says. Zero has about ten paintings currently up around Chicago’s South Side.

The mural was viewable for only one month before it was painted over. Washington Park Arts Incubator spokesperson Mitchell Marr says, “We decied not to have a community meeting.” Instead, the mural’s quick removal kickstarted an idea among the staff to use this wall as a rotating platform for other mural artists. As such, all new murals painted on this site will be temporary. Lee Bey, a special projects manager at the Arts Incubator, told Chicago, “There is now a process in the wake of this. There will be community engagement in advance of the murals—not to veto the subject matter but to give the residents a sense of how it’s all put together.”

Joint Statement from Ald. Pat Dowell and Theaster Gates: “Several complaints were made that the mural was offensive containing ‘negative images and gang symbols.’ While the art in the mural was unfamiliar and no offense was intended, the 3rd Ward is home to many murals that local residents feel feature positive messages. Community residents as well as the cultural community, through the Washington Park Arts Incubator is engaging in an ongoing discussion on murals in the Washington Park neighborhood, encouraging input, feedback and support.”

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