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Alderman Covers Artist's Bridgeport Mural Painted on Private Property

By Kalyn Belsha in News on May 16, 2009 6:40PM

Ald. Balcer: Art Nemesis or Civic Saint? (bad MS Paint by Marcus Gilmer/Chicagoist)
Artists beware. If you plan to paint anything on your own property that depicts even the slightest vestige of the Chicago Police Department, you run the risk of being brown-washed. At least that’s what happened to well-known Chicago artist and muralist Gabriel Villa Thursday. He received a call that a large-scale, outdoor mural he had been painting in Bridgeport for two weeks had been covered in brown paint - at the insistence of 11th Ward Alderman James Balcer.

The mural, painted on the side of a bar and liquor store near 31st and Morgan Street, depicted three CPD blue light cameras, each emblazoned with the force’s logo and a peculiar icon: a crucified Christ, a deer head and a skull. But Villa says there was nothing anti-police about it.

“I wanted to upset people a little bit, I wanted to be provocative,” he told NBC of his design choice. But he says he wasn’t trying to make a statement for or against the department. “I wanted to create a platform for dialogue but the mural was never given a chance,” Villa said.

Villa was asked by the building’s owner to paint the mural as a part of a local arts festival. Villa says many residents told him they liked the art and that several police officers approached him as he worked.

Balcer, a long-time and well-known Daley ally, has called the shots on permits and zoning issues in his South Side ward for more than a decade. Balcer came under fire from the Tribune in February 2008 for helping Daley supporters rezone their property in his ward, allowing them to flip it for millions in profits. Balcer says he asked the city to remove the mural because the building owner did not have a permit for the artwork. And three or four residents had called to complain about “graffiti.” Oh, and he had gotten some calls from local police who didn’t like it either.

“You know I don't know if there was hidden gang meaning behind it with the cross, with the skull, with the deer, with the police cameras,” Balcer told WBEZ. “Was there something anti-police about it? I don't know what's in his mind. That's how I viewed it.” Balcer says he did not trounce on the artist’s freedom of speech. The complaints came in, he said, so he had it removed. “Everyone has a right to their opinion, but there’s limits,” he told NBC. “He has to follow the law, this artist, like everyone else.”

The question remains, did Villa really need a permit to paint his mural?

According to WBEZ, a section of the City Code for the Chicago Buildings Department says building owners need a permit for painted signage or to alter painted signage. But a spokesperson for the city’s law department says you don’t need a permit to paint a mural on the side of a private building - so long as it’s not an ad and the owner gave you his or her permission. Villa is upset the city removed his mural so quickly and without notifying him or the building owner. “I don’t think a city should have that much power,” he said. [WBEZ, NBC via Windy Citizen]

For before and after pictures of the mural, check out this WBEZ blog post.