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VOL. 133 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 8, 2018

Council Still Battling With Public Art Issue

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council members were told Tuesday, March 6, that removing a mural from a private business front on Lamar Avenue will be difficult despite a council call to do so.

The zombie-like mural by the artist Dustin Spagnola has drawn most of the ire of council members for several months. Some have called it “satanic.” Others on the council argue the imagery isn’t respectful of the surrounding community.

Paint Memphis founder Karen Golightly has sparred with the council over the last two months saying she sought public input and set guidelines based on what residents said they wanted.

Assistant city attorney Jennifer Sink said she is exploring a court order to have the Spagnola artwork painted over and told the council “It’s difficult for a court. To make that finding would be a challenge.”

Council attorney Allan Wade likened it to the city’s drawn out attempt over several years to modify the exterior of Prince Mongo’s nightclub on Front Street decades ago. As the city pursued Mongo – whose real name is Robert Hodges – he changed the exterior appearance and at one point changed its name to “Saint Mongo’s Planet.”

Berlin Boyd

Meanwhile, the council approved a resolution Tuesday “deeming certain murals on public rights-of-way to be offensive and objectionable to the community” and requested their removal. The resolution proposed by council chairman Berlin Boyd sites murals on public property on Willett Street near Lamar Avenue and the city floodwall on Chelsea Avenue.

Boyd said his call to paint over some of the images isn’t based just on his own perception. He said he and other council members are getting lots of emails from the two areas complaining about the images.

Boyd quoted from an email from a lifelong resident of the Chelsea area of North Memphis complaining and calling for “anything that represents our black community – other than gang-looking art.”

Worth Morgan

“For people to say that citizens that live and reside in those communities find this art appropriate – this shows you that their perception is this art is offensive. It looks like gang graffiti.”

Council member Worth Morgan was part of the unanimous council support for the resolutions dealing with the murals on public space after some initial reservations when the targeted murals included those on private property.

“I want to make sure people understand we are not debating what is art. We are debating whether this art is tasteful or appropriate in its current place,” he said. “It wasn’t put up illegally. It is put in a public place and it’s dramatically different than private art on private property. We do have a responsibility to say what is tasteful.”

Morgan said the city has the right to remove the art but questioned whether it was “effectively communicated” to the artists.

Council member Joe Brown, who earlier this year called the Spagnola mural “satanic,” contradicted Morgan.

“This is not art,” he said, speaking after Morgan.

“This shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Brown added. “We need to make sure what’s going on with any kind of art that’s going up.”

The council approved another resolution by Boyd that declares a moratorium on issuing new contracts and licenses or permits by the city for “art on city-owned property or public rights-of-way” until the council comes up with guidelines for such art.

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