The Gompers Mural: Victory for youth artists and freedom of expression
After intense organizing led by youth and their adult allies, the Richmond City Council voted unanimously on April 19, 2011 to protect the right of Gompers High School students to re-paint their mural adjacent to the new Gompers community garden on the Richmond Greenway at 8th Street. Thus the unfortunate outcome of a big misunderstanding last fall was able to be reversed and repaired.
Last October, the students, under the guidance of their art teacher Gretchen Borg and youth mentor David Meza, had designed and painted a vibrant mural done in graffiti art style that expressed their pride in their school and community. They had obtained permission from the property owner and attempted to get permission from the City of Richmond, only to discover that there is no process available for doing so. After the mural was complete, the City's Code Enforcement Division, which is part of the Police Department, determined that the mural constituted "unauthorized graffiti" and ordered it painted over. In a few moments their work of the previous several weeks was gone.
The City's graffiti ordinance defines illegal graffiti as "unauthorized" markings on a structure. There are different interpretations about whether the property owner or the City need to give authorization, and as the students had already discovered, there is no mechanism for getting authorization from the City. If you look around Richmond, you'll notice lots of murals of various types and styles on private buildings that have not been authorized by the City. These are different and distinct from the “tagging” that represents acts of vandalism and warrants abatement.
The Gompers mural is the third instance of Code Enforcement ordering the destruction of a mural on private property. All three happened to be done in the graffiti art style, and all three were authorized by the property owners. The artists and property owners in the other two instances (Mario's Deli at 23rd and Maricopa, and Paul's Paint near McBryde and San Pablo) have not pursued a remedy to date, but the Gompers students didn't give up.
The students filed a complaint with the Police Department and asked Mayor McLaughlin to give them an opportunity to voice their dismay in front of the City Council. On March 22, there was a City Council study session at which the youth appeared with signs and spoke about how devastating it was for them to have their artwork destroyed, after they had followed all the rules and made every attempt to do things the right way. The City Manager and Police Chief apologized to the students and noted that the City's Arts Manager and other staff are currently working on a new ordinance to address this type of situation, and that a few months from now, once that ordinance is in place, the students could seek permission to re-paint the mural.
Following the March 22 Council meeting Mayor McLaughlin spoke with the students and it became clear that they preferred to re-paint their mural now, since school will soon be out, and some will be graduating. The Mayor put this item on the April 19 City Council agenda, with Councilmembers Booze and Ritterman as co-sponsors.
With the support of allies at the RYSE Center, the ACLU and many other community members, the students succeeded in making the case that they should be allowed to re-paint their mural now, without any censorship of the content. The Richmond Arts and Culture Commission had added a recommendation to protect all existing murals in Richmond, as long as the property owner has given permission, and this was also passed by the Council.
Mayor McLaughlin is now working with the Arts Manager, other staff and community members to clarify the graffiti ordinance for addressing illegal vandalism and to create an ordinance for community-based art on private property that will encourage artistic expression and respect first amendment rights.
Meanwhile, watch out for the new Gompers mural on the Greenway, coming soon!