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Jersey City Residents Decry Offensive Murals Commissioned by the City [UPDATED]

A new petition demands a proper vetting process for murals and claims a number of them have failed to properly engage with the local history and community.

A recently finished mural by local artist PAWN (all photos supplied to Hyperallergic)

Jersey City residents are calling on their mayor to restructure the city’s Mural Arts Program, criticizing the current policies of the nearly four-year-old initiative as inadequate and even harmful for their neighborhoods. An online petition organized by local artist Sarah Ordway demands a proper vetting process for potential murals that includes input from community members, noting that a number of chosen artworks have failed to properly engage with Jersey City’s history and community. As of press time, the petition had garnered more than 100 signatories.

A mural by local artist PAWN

Numerous artworks have frustrated residents since the program’s inception in 2013. Ordway’s petition highlights a mural local artist PAWN completed last Saturday on Sip Avenue, which encapsulates what she sees as the program’s failures. It is, as she writes in the petition, “blatantly insensitive to Native American history and culture,” featuring stereotypical iconography of a wolf howling at the moon and a teepee glowing beneath the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

Other contentious works the program has commissioned include a different piece by PAWN, completed with artist Emilio Florentine, of a Native American woman with an American flag painted on her face, and a mural of David Bowie finished last November by Brazilian artist Kobra — what Ordway describes as a “trendy” tribute to an icon who has no actual ties to the area. Last summer, as Hyperallergic previously reported, a painting of a Monopoly game board by artist Mr. AbiLLity became a heated topic of censorship: Jersey City officials responded to local criticism of the imagery they had initially approved by painting over it entirely.

Following that controversy, Mayor Steven Fulop promised that the city would establish a new board — with local artists included — to better review murals, as The Jersey Journal reported last year. Although his council was supposed to approve this order in September, it has yet to be realized, as evidenced by the offending works that residents watched pop up around them in the subsequent months.

“Instead of learning from their mistakes and holding off until a council is in place, the city continues to push murals through,” Ordway told Hyperallergic. “We agree that an arts council is the best way to conduct a mural program. One wouldn’t publish an article without having an editor take a second look; I propose the same is true for a mural program. Critique, feedback, and revision are crucial to the process of erecting high-quality work on our city’s buildings.”

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The mural program has long been shrouded in mystery: it has no application process and is directed entirely by a sole employee of the Office of Cultural Affairs, Brooke Hansson. From what local artists understand, Hansson selects and places murals as she sees fit, with little to no engagement with the communities. Fulop, in his 2014 State of the City address, noted that “we’ve taken pains to ensure these murals are inspired by the neighborhoods they beautify — that they tell our stories of place and community.” But murals like PAWN’s, which, to some, failed twice to honor Jersey City’s precolonial history and its settlement by Lenape nations, suggest otherwise. Hyperallergic has reached out to the Office of Cultural Affairs and to the Mayor’s office but has not received a response. Inquiries to PAWN have also gone unanswered.

Underscoring the gravity of the petition’s mission is a concern that the mural program is contributing to the acceleration of gentrification in the city. The program is funded by a Clean Communities grant, which also pays for an anti-litter initiative, Stop the Drop, as part of a broader effort, Keep Jersey City Beautiful. Ordway fears that the city is devoting more of these funds to creating murals and paying less attention to ridding areas of trash. She also sees the program’s hastiness — it approved more than 70 murals in its first two years — as a tactic to make neighborhoods more appealing to prospective residents, to beautify them by coloring the walls rather than cleaning the streets.

“I feel the city is intentionally creating a subpar arts environment to speed up gentrification and give the illusion that artists have moved in [so they can] build high rises and raise rent,” Ordway told Hyperallergic. She noted that she does not blame the artists involved, “but the development of this ‘outdoor art gallery’ has proven to be more important than improving impoverished areas of Jersey City, and getting murals on walls is more important than taking the time to involve the community who walks past them every day.”

As the New York Times reported last year, Jersey City is the state’s fastest-growing metropolitan area; the paper today published an in-depth report on its transformation and increasing signs of gentrification. And a real estate boom, no doubt, will signal more walls open for mural projects.

Update, 5/8, 1:30 pm: PAWN has sent Hyperallergic a statement on his murals, noting that his collaboration with Florentine is “nothing but a tribute to the Lenni-Lenape tribe and its culture which inhabited the land in the neighborhood we now call Bergan-Lafayette Jersey City.” The painted American flag, he says, is intended to “depict the irony of ‘land of the free home of the brave.'” His most recent mural on Sip Avenue is “a tribute to my dead dog and play[s] on what the sky which the building now blocks could have looked like before we built our cities and blocked out the night with our light pollution.”

PAWN also claims his latest work was vetted by the local community, including the neighborhood’s block association, the JSQ Community Association. Hansson had first announced that a mural was forthcoming during one of the association’s meetings in early April; the small group of attendees, however, did not receive a final concept image of PAWN’s work until a week later, when the mural was already underway in the highly populated neighborhood.

“In no way, shape or form is this proper vetting,” local artist Amy Wilson told Hyperallergic. “Even had all 15 people in that room heartily welcomed the mural, that doesn’t in any way clear the piece in the community at large.

“If the city was so concerned with getting neighborhood approval, why not circulate the image sooner? Why wait until it was underway? … There are plenty of ways to get an image out for public feedback. We have a local paper, plenty of online resources, and the city has a huge database of emails that they use to contact residents all the time. Why not use ANY of these resources at their disposal to get feedback?

“You wouldn’t drop Kara Walker’s Domino Sugar Factory piece into a community with no education or information made available to the public about the artist,” Wilson added. “And that’s what the city did here. The city set him up for this situation, and now they won’t even comment to defend him.”

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