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City launches mural registry to avert mistakes by graffiti removal crews

Graffiti removal

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

At least 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.

It won’t happen again if artists, organizations and property owners take the time to list their works of art on a citywide mural registry launched Monday and graffiti-removal crews remember to check that database before blasting away.

Artists and property owners can go to chicago.gov/muralregistry to see the registration criteria and complete an application.

Accepted murals will be assigned a “unique mural registration ID” and receive an official city emblem to prominently post on the work of art. There is no fee to have a mural listed; the database will be public.

Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly said public art is “very much a part of the spirit and quality of life” in Chicago neighborhoods.

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“Not only will the registry help protect these critical assets. It will also create a portal for the public to access and explore where murals are located in every corner of the city,” Kelly said in a news release.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel added: “This registry will strengthen Chicago’s legacy of public art and enable artists to share their work with the world.”

In repeated mistakes that embarrassed the city and infuriated local artists, city crews painted over or removed murals that turned out to be public works of art.

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

The registry was the brainchild of Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd), who had to overcome resistance from Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

When Hopkins tried the first time to pass the registry, Lopez raised concerns about taxpayer liability and making certain graffiti removal remains a higher priority than preserving public art.

The second time was the charm, only after Hopkins modified the ordinance to alleviate both concerns.

The revised version made it clear that the city “has no additional exposure to any kind of litigation if we accidentally remove a mural that some artist believes was their property and they decide they want to sue us,” Hopkins said.

The final version further mandated that the “insignia for the registered artwork be a three-dimensional placard of some type that’s hard to counterfeit” and must be affixed “to a wall in such a way that it’s hard for the Streets and San crew to not notice it,” Hopkins said.