Balcer orders City to paint over mural on private property
July 3, 2009

Villa’s mural depicted a crucifix, deer head, and skull mounted on police surveillance cameras.

By Sarah Severson | July 2009

In May, City workers painted over a mural by artist Gabriel Villa on the wall of Kaplan Liquors, 960 W. 31st Street, after receiving an order by 11th Ward Alderman James Balcer, who said the artwork was graffiti. The move has provoked controversy because Villa painted the mural with permission from the owner, but Balcer was concerned the mural’s content promoted violence in a neighborhood that is struggling with high crime, he said.

The mural depicted three Chicago Police Department surveillance cameras, one mounted with a crucifix, another with a deer head, and the third with a skull.

Nearly two months later, Villa has joined forces with a pro bono organization, Lawyers for the Creative Arts, in hopes of reaching a settlement with the City of Chicago.

“He had a mural that he created for the owner of the property, and [the City] destroyed private property,” said William Rattner, executive director. “We have been in contact with the City and hope to meet with them to see what kind of possible neutral resolution can be worked out. Nothing has been concluded with Gabriel’s matter.”

Rattner said it was not clear what legal basis existed for erasing the mural and that he had never seen this situation before.

“Are there artists who come in conflict with the City? Sure, but this circumstance is pretty unusual, where the City has destroyed artwork on private property,” Rattner said.

Balcer said he had calls from residents and police in the neighborhood who were alarmed by the content of the mural — he and others said it promoted violence.

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Local resident Michael Hernandez de Luna, an artist, called such accusations “nonsense.”

He went on to say, “The mural was in an area that is a cesspool of violence. The alderman’s actions were empowered by his position, and I think that’s a more crucial issue than a mural. If I were Villa, I would just go paint it over again.”

“I stand by what I did,” Balcer said. “My main concern is the safety and well-being for the people in this community. We have gang violence and children getting shot, and I believed that the mural sent the wrong message.”

Balcer said the ward has other murals he has not had covered and that he had received numerous calls from residents thanking him for painting over Villa’s mural.

When Villa learned what had happened, he called the alderman and left a message. When Villa did not hear back from Balcer right away, he went online to spread the word and asked for assistance from the Chicago artist community.

Eventually, “the alderman called my phone to express his point of view for why got rid of the mural,” Villa said. “I wanted him to publicly say that he had abused his power, but he wasn’t going to do it.”

Villa said the idea for the mural had been rolling around in his mind for a while as he was preparing for an art show called Surveillance and Spirituality that he plans to present next month.

“I knew it had this power and knew it would be provocative,” he said. “There is an aspect to life now where everything is documented. I wanted to show the themes of gentrification, displacement, and surveillance.”

Villa said that, through the lawyers, he is requesting compensation for the time he worked on the mural and the cost of materials.

He also wants to paint the mural again, with the repainting paid for by the City.

After the mural was removed, Villa wrote a blog post that details the meaning of the images at http://artcensorshipinchicagogabrielvilla.blogspot.com. There, he said he “chose to depict the three mass-produced, over-saturated, and universal symbols” of the deer head, the crucifix, and the skull.

Attempts to contact a spokesperson for Kaplan Liquors were unsuccessful.

One Response »

  1. I live in this area of Bridgeport and have lived in BRidgeport my whole life. Let me say first that I appreciate the artists and the art that they bring with them to this area, and I hope that they keep moving here. But I do not support anything that may incite violence. The gangbangers have terrorized this area of Bridgeport since before I can remember, and putting up a mural that depicts these cameras as a hinderance on society only provokes them to keep acting out. They see this as support from the incoming artists, and the last thing that you should be doing is supporting these domestic terrorists. Do you think any of us like these cameras? No one likes being watched, but when public safetey is compromised by these gangbangers it becomes an unpopular necessity. Like I said, I live here, and I have a child that I do not allow to walk down the street alone because of the gang violence. The area where that blue light camera is installed was a war zone before it went up. The gangbangers would throw rocks at your car if they didn’t know you. Without this camera and the police activity the artists would not be allowed to ride their bikes down Morgan without being attacked. I know that in the artist community it gives you some sort of street “cred” to dust up controversy, but if you really wanted to be “provocative” why don’t you paint a mural that makes fun of the gangbangers, and supports the residents of Bridgeport? It’s their fault that we have the cameras in the first place, so lash out at them and not the alderman, the police, and the residents of the longtime residents of Bridgeport.

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