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Art or Graffiti? Richmond Greenway Controversy Highlights Important Issue

By Ruby Brunk

The city of Richmond, Calif., recently found itself in the center of an ongoing debate around the definition and role of public art after the city painted over a commissioned mural along the Richmond Greenway this October. Painted on a private building with the property owner's permission, the mural took two weeks and $1,000 for students from nearby Gompers High School to create.

Teacher Gretchen Borg says she asked the city for a permit but was told that she only needed the building owner’s permission, which she had acquired. While the resulting mural didn’t contain any obscene words or pictures, some community members saw it as offensive, in part because of the graffiti-like style of the words and pictures. Officials received some complaints, declared the mural graffiti and asked Borg and the property owner to remove it. Borg’s students attempted to mitigate the graffiti style by painting over their signatures, which resembled often-illegal “tagging,” but the Richmond Graffiti Abatement Team showed up shortly after and painted over the mural. 

The students who painted the mural were also planting trees and building a garden along a nearby portion of the Richmond Greenway. Funded through a partnership between youth investment program Opportunity West, the city of Richmond Recreation Department and Friends of the Richmond Greenway, the greenway projects were designed to improve the rail-trail while drawing youth out to play and exercise on it. Programs that encourage youth creativity and stewardship through commissioned graffiti art exist across the county and often coincide with a decrease in the occurrence of unauthorized graffiti. Nearby Livermore’s utility box painting program is a great example of how publicly generated art can successfully deter unauthorized graffiti and vandalism. 

After the mural was painted over, Gompers students attended a city council meeting where they voiced concern over the city's decision to remove the mural without their consent. City officials apologized and admitted multi-agency miscommunication. Richmond’s ambiguous graffiti laws were also cited as a factor, since “unauthorized public marking” is illegal, yet there’s no process for gaining authorization or permits. The city has since authorized re-painting of the mural and agreed to cover the cost of materials. Richmond has also passed a temporary moratorium preventing the removal of murals when created on private property with the owner's permission. This city is also developing a new law that may require potential murals to undergo city review and a public hearing before obtaining a permit.

Getting everyone on the same page about permitted uses is essential in preventing mistakes like this miscommunication in Richmond. And a public review of potential murals could encourage community engagement in the public art process. However, art is also a matter of taste. Because communities are made up of varying identity groups and populations, no single piece will be appropriate, engaging and relevant to everyone. The students from Gompers High School created a mural that was significant to their experience. In the process they spent time on the Richmond Greenway and became trail stewards. Although the style of their art may not be appreciated by everyone, their dedication to the greenway and their community should be respected both by city officials and other residents.

Photo: Richmond Greenway, by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Posted Mon, May 9 2011 11:08 AM by Stephen Miller (RTC)

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