One mural erased, another defaced. Should Wide Open Walls artworks be preserved?

A mural painted on a building by artist Waylon Horner at Broadway and 34th Street during Open Walls 2017 has been defaced on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif.
A mural painted on a building by artist Waylon Horner at Broadway and 34th Street during Open Walls 2017 has been defaced on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 in Sacramento, Calif. rpench@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s recent Wide Open Walls event brought about 40 new murals to streets and alleys in downtown, midtown and other neighborhoods.

Many are now popular sights for passers-by and on social media. The Wide Open Walls Instagram page counts more than 11,000 followers, and event hashtags appear in several thousand posts, many showing people – or dogs – posing in front of the works.

But not every mural has been well received. One, at Pipeworks climbing gym on North 16th Street, was painted over by the business’ management shortly after going up. Another, on Broadway and 34th Street in Oak Park, recently was tagged with a spray-painted message decrying gentrification.

If last month’s 10-day art festival succeeded in brightening some of the city’s walls, then these incidents also underscored the question of what happens to the murals now that the event is over, and who gets the final say on art that appears in public places.

The Pipeworks mural, painted by New Zealand artist Askew One, lasted just days. As of last week, the broad building where the mural had appeared as a collage of jutting shapes and colors had been coated with white paint.

Pipeworks, which is operated by Touchstone Climbing, said in a statement that “due to a conflict between the artist (and) the festival, the mural was not done as promised. We felt it better to remove it than leave it as is. We are saddened by the misunderstanding but look forward to providing another mural canvas in the future.” Sacramento Pipeworks general manager Vaughn Medford, who provided the statement via email, declined further comment.

Askew One, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Bee, criticized Wide Open Walls organizers in a since-deleted Instagram post for “unclear communication,” and elaborated in a Twitter thread on Tuesday.

Askew wrote that organizers “sold a very specific (mural) concept” to Pipeworks before the festival “but failed to communicate” the agreement to him “in clear terms.” The mural he produced, Askew wrote, was “reflective of my current paintings but it didn’t match up with what they ‘sold’ to the owner.”

David Sobon, founder and producer of Wide Open Walls, said Tuesday that the concept for the Pipeworks mural “wasn’t realized” and the resulting image was “not what (the owners) expected.” Sobon said he “discouraged” Pipeworks management from painting over the mural but that the final decision was “beyond my control.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Sobon said. “I’m really disappointed that we don’t have an Askew mural in Sacramento anymore.”

Sobon said Wide Open Walls did not have formal agreements with building owners to keep any of the murals up for a specific amount of time and that it is up to the owners – who paid to have murals painted on their buildings – how long to preserve them.

“We have to be able to give the landlords complete control of the art – I don’t see any other way to do it,” Sobon said. “But of course we’ve asked them to keep the art up, because it’s important. It’s beautiful. And most landlords completely see the value of the art.”

Jeff Musser, a local Wide Open Walls artist who painted a mural on Power Inn Road, said he would like to see participating building owners sign a contract to leave the murals up for at least a year. “They should stay for a while,” he said. “They encapsulate a certain moment in Sacramento’s history, a moment of where that artist was at that point in their life. But I also understand it’s the nature of public work that the public is going to engage with it and may not like it. That’s something that goes with the territory.”

In a visible example, local artist Waylon Horner’s colorful mural on a brick wall in Oak Park was tagged last week with a comment on the potential effects of urban renewal. The message in white spray paint read: “Gentrify 101. Make it hip!” followed by an expletive. Horner could not be reached for a response.

Musser, who addressed concerns about gentrification in his own mural, said that while it’s an issue “that needs to be talked about,” painting over an artist’s mural “is the wrong approach.”

“The artists are not bringing the gentrification,” Musser said. “It’s happening whether artists are there or not.”

Ideally, Sobon said, all of the murals would be coated with anti-graffiti sealant that also protects them from UV damage. Sobon said he hopes to raise funds this fall to carry out that “very expensive process.” He estimated it will take about $60,000 to treat this year’s murals but said he hopes to raise $100,000 to preserve some of the city’s pre-existing murals as well. Funding for Wide Open Walls came largely from public and private sponsors, including presenting sponsor Visit Sacramento.

City officials, meanwhile, are also looking at ways to preserve the murals. Councilman Steve Hansen said he has asked city arts and culture officials to explore whether the murals could become part of the public trust, essentially designating them as public art. That likely would include stipulations that the murals remain in place for five years or more, and be coated with sealant.

Some of the works – such as Raphael Delgado’s massive bear high on the side of a building on 21st Street – are likely less susceptible to vandalism. But many others are at ground level.

“The mural festival contributed a lot to the public spirit of Sacramento and left us with very inspiring works of art,” he said. “We need to ensure that they stay up on the buildings and are protected from graffiti and can be enjoyed long into the future.”