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You might say David Ulrich is trying to turn his eyewear store into a circus. Walk up to the north wall of his building on West St. Paul's North Robert Street and you'll see what resembles a headless, bikini-clad Monica Lewinsky holding up her own head on a platter. Near her you'll spot Malcome, the black disco dancer with X-ray eyes; a rampaging, club-swinging, leotard-wearing cyclops; and the unfinished Penguin Man. Further overhead you can make out dim sketches to which muralists Tom Warn and John Reipas have yet to apply paint. Among them is a portrait of several wormy orbs emerging from holes in the ground, and a terrorized crowd fleeing a flying saucer.
Weird stuff, but the pictures' shock value is nothing compared to the terse message from the artists, scrawled in black over one sketch. "This whole building was to be adorned with paintings," it reads. "Unfortunately, this project has been shot down by West St. Paul city inspectors. Our efforts have been censored."
Reipas and Warn do business as MasterMind Murals; they're artists for hire who contract their services to firms wanting to spruce up their exterior with wall art that runs from $400 to $600 per 4-foot-by-8-foot panel. MasterMind does about 10 pieces a year, most of them far more subdued than their work at Ulrich's Spectacle Shoppe Too. For the past two weeks they've been working to cover the building with colorful images of circus freaks. But that ended last Friday, when West St. Paul City Inspector Terry Maruska showed up and, as Reipas tells it, made like a Cossack: "'Put down the brushes or I'll have you arrested,'" Reipas says Maruska told them. "He was pointing his phone at me like it was a bloody handgun."
Maruska, he says, explained that the cyclops and Fifi (the Lewinsky look-alike, which the artists insist is simply a shapely circus freak) generated complaints from neighbors and that the work constituted an unlicensed business sign. If they wanted to make art, he suggested, why not try colorful geometric shapes?
Maruska didn't return calls for comment, but Assistant West St. Paul City Attorney Kori Land confirms that the inspector quashed the project. The West St. Paul City Council has a sign ordinance so tough, she explains, that any image permanently affixed to the outside of a business is considered advertising.
Judging from the comments of passersby who stopped to stare at the unfinished mural Sunday, public opinion in West St. Paul is more concerned with the aesthetics of Reipas and Warn's work than with the zoning code. Mary Lamgula, a mother and neighborhood resident, says she can't wait to see the murals done away with. "There are kids in this neighborhood who have to look at this!" she blurts out.
If Reipas and shop owner Ulrich have their way, Lamgula might be well advised to fit her kids with blinders. Both insist that the painting will continue. And if the city doesn't like the vision theme of the current mural, Reipas says mysteriously, he's designed "the ultimate painting to resolve the issue. It's going to blow Maruska's mind. He should be smart enough not to mess with artists, because they always get the last laugh."
As for the neighbors, Reipas adds, they better beef up on the First Amendment: "There are all kinds of things in society that people find offensive. Myself, I find all the shades of beige they use in that neighborhood offensive, but I don't do anything about it. That's America, you know. That's the price of freedom."
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