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Mural registry stalls, despite graffiti removal mistakes

City workers are shown removing graffiti in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Four times in recent months, overzealous city crews have used paint or graffiti blasters to remove murals that turned out to be public works of art.

On Thursday, an effort to eliminate that confusion stalled in the City Council’s Zoning Committee amid concern that removing graffiti should be a higher priority than preserving public art.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wants to eliminate the confusion by creating a citywide mural registry that graffiti removal crews would have to check before painting or blasting operations begin.

The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events would maintain the registry for private property owners who commission art on the outside walls of their buildings.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wants to start a citywide mural registry that graffiti removal crews would have to check before painting or blasting operations begin.<br>| Sun-Times file photo
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) wants to start a citywide mural registry that graffiti removal crews would have to check before painting or blasting operations begin.
| Sun-Times file photo

The city would distribute an official “emblem or insignia that would be affixed to the art” so graffiti removal crews would know they should leave it alone.

“In many cases, commissioned street art looks to the untrained eye a lot like graffiti. You can’t be expected to know the difference if you’re not immersed in that world of trendy street art. Crews find out after the fact that they removed some significant artwork and they felt terrible. They apologized. But there’s nothing you can do. The work is destroyed. You can’t bring it back,” Hopkins said.

“We really want to relieve the burden on Streets and San crews of trying to figure out as they stand there on the sidewalk looking at something `Is this objectionable graffiti or is this someone’s precious work of art?’ It shouldn’t be their job to try and figure that out.”

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) said it’s a shame the murals were mistakenly removed. But he’s more concerned about a bureaucratic requirement that could slow down removal of graffiti that destroys public property and creates a breeding ground for other crimes.

Lopez pointed to a line in Hopkins’ ordinance that requires the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to inspect graffiti removal requests before Streets and Sanitation crews start cleaning.

“We may be over-reacting to recent events. I know we’ve lost three murals. But, that’s three murals out of 79,000 clean-ups throughout the city to date. That’s less than three-thousandths of one percent error rate,” Lopez said.

“For communities like mine that see graffiti on a daily basis where we’re constantly trying to stay one step ahead of gang members and people trying to lay claim to our neighborhoods and our streets, anything that potentially could slow down this process … could do more harm than good.”

Lopez also pointed to a more technical legal concern raised in an American Bar Association publication.

The article states, “To the dismay of many street artists, it is unclear whether current U.S. intellectual property (IP) law protects unsanctioned street art from unauthorized copying, removal, sale, or destruction of the work.”

Unless and until that legal question is settled, Lopez said the city shouldn’t put itself in the middle of that dispute.

“Let’s say a street artist decides to graffiti the side of my business and gets it on a registry. Are we here to protect the artist’s artwork or are we here to clean up the building owner’s property?” Lopez said.

“What’s to stop taggers and gang members from now trying to use this registry as a way to protect gang and tagging in Chicago by claiming it’s artwork as well? We’re really opening up a can of worms if we try to go this route.”

Hopkins said he hopes to find a way to alleviate all of Lopez concerns in time to pass the mural registry at the Zoning Committee’s next meeting.

The latest mural mistakenly removed was the work of artist JC Rivera. It was painted over soon after it was completed near the Paulina station on the CTA’s Brown Line.

Similar mistakes inadvertently removed murals in Hermosa, Wicker Park and at the North Side headquarters of Cards Against Humanity.