Public Spectacle

Art meets advertising in a West St. Paul brush with the law

The mural looming above the entryway of the Spectacle Shoppe in West St. Paul is a wild sight to behold. There's the scar-faced, leather-clad biker in tinted shades adorning one panel, tentacled extraterrestrials with dangling white eyes decorating another. And then there's the fire-red eyeball with a swastika emblazoned in the pupil, descending on a fleeing crowd and one lone figure bearing brushes and a paint can. Artists Tom Warn and John Reipas put the finishing strokes on the scene in August and signed their work. But as it turns out, the city's zoning department is set to put its own creative touch on the mural, which it claims is an illegal sign, by whitewashing the whole thing.

"Our mural is on death row!" Warn laments. "It's going to be a sad feeling when we put that much work into something"--hundreds of hours altogether--"and then someone is going to paint over our art for all the wrong reasons."

The hubbub over the mural started nearly 18 months ago, when Spectacle Shoppe owner David Ulrich decided to spruce up the exterior of his building in the heart of North Robert Street's rather dreary commercial district. Ulrich took out a $20,000 low-interest, small-business loan from the city and used it to plant a garden next to his shop and to hire Warn and Reipas (City Pages first reported on this story in "An Eye for an Eye" April 29, 1998).

Seeing red: Spectacle Shoppe owner David Ulrich and his controversial art
Mark Wojahn
Seeing red: Spectacle Shoppe owner David Ulrich and his controversial art

The two muralists, who co-own Master Mind Design, figured that some Barnum & Bailey-style flourishes would enliven the building's drab exterior. They set about painting it with characters like Malcome, a disco dancer sporting an Afro and x-ray shades, and Fifi, a buxom vixen serving her own decapitated head on a platter. When city inspectors caught wind in April 1998 of the new circus freaks who'd moved onto Robert Street, they paid Ulrich a visit.

"They threatened the painters and told them they would go to jail and get an $800 fine," Ulrich recalls, adding that the inspectors also told him that the mural was in violation of West St. Paul's ordinance against oversized commercial signs (by law, they can cover only ten percent of the total wall area). What's more, he says, one inspector told Ulrich that he could be arrested for criminal activity in regard to the mural. Without putting too fine a point on it, "I called him a Nazi pig, and he just told me 'thanks' and walked away."

Ulrich claims that not long after the incident other inspectors started to harass him by writing up expensive work orders to remedy code violations in his building. Ulrich asked the two artists to put the project on the back burner while he attempted to negotiate a truce during the summer of 1998. That series of meetings with city leaders, Reipas says, "went in circles. We're dealing with the imagination here, and the people in the city council just don't have much imagination when it comes to art."

By this spring Ulrich had lost patience and gave the go-ahead to finish the artwork. "I wanted to stand up for my rights as a businessperson," he says. "The city has harassed businesses throughout this area and everybody is afraid to stand up to these guys. We want this to be a landmark case."

Art shmart, says West St. Paul city attorney Rollie Crawford; Ulrich's mural is no museum fare--it's advertising, pure and simple. "We believe businesses have their First Amendment rights," Crawford allows, "but when you surreptitiously put commercial images in a mural, then you have violated our ordinance. We need an ordinance like this because otherwise people would call every sign art."

Crawford doesn't take issue with the mural's eyewear theme--the monstrous eyeball, for one, and the several characters decked out in specs and sunglasses. "If you want to paint something tasteless," he says, "you can, as long as it is not obscene." It's the lettering, he says, that makes the mural a sign: "Nice Specs," "The One-eyed Giant," "Evil Eyes," and other phrases have been painted in bold colors across the building's face. If Ulrich were to order the artists to remove the wording, Crawford believes, the city council would likely let the mural stay.

Nothing doing. What began as a personal beautification project has turned into an act of civil disobedience, a political crusade against what Ulrich calls pure and simple censorship. To that end, early this year he seconded the artists' plan to depict his embattled position; they came up with the tortured symbol of the surveillance eyeball and its swastika. That move, it seems, has only served to further heat up the dispute.

"The boundaries between art and advertising are being messed up," Tom Borrup, executive director at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, says of Ulrich's situation. "It's pretty scary that officials should be in a position of regulating art." Borrup cites several cases in which police have confiscated artists' materials and painted over public signs. In St. Paul, where street-visible murals are defined as signs if they portray items sold in the commercial building on which they're painted, officials recently debated whether a liquor store violated the city's ordinance because its mural featured a single glass of wine.

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