The brutal layering of ugly brown paint over the rich colors of an artist’s mural is an act of vandalism far worse then graffiti, which often has the redeeming value of being creative, expressive and even beautiful. How disturbing that an elected official, Chicago’s 11th Ward Alderman James Balcer, could be responsible for such a reckless act. The Alderman was apparently so incensed at a new mural painted by Gabriel Villa that he ordered its destruction before taking the time to contact either the artist or the property owner who had commissioned the work and before checking City Regulations to find out that the artist did not need a permit to paint a mural on a private building. 

Even after Mayor Daley qualified the destruction of the mural as a “mistake” (though not a significant one), Alderman Balcer remains unrepentant and brings up a confused litany of reasons for his act – the mural might have been anti-police (so what – can’t an artist criticize public institutions?), he has received complaints (so what – should all public art be subject to a heckler’s veto?), there was no permit (no permit was needed), there might have been hidden gang meaning (we can imagine hidden meanings residing just about in everything), it was an incitement to violence (no proof of that whatsoever), and so on. It is obvious to all that the real reason was that the mural, which featured police surveillance cameras in conjunction with symbols frequently found in the Mexican community, might have been interpreted as critical of the practice of police surveillance in the barrio.

Murals have long served as an important form of speech, presenting valuable social commentary in a medium available to the public.  The early twentieth century Mexican muralist movement led by Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Siqueiros, chronicled the lives and accomplishments of the working class and fueled political discussion.  Inspired by the Mexican muralists, artists of the Chicano Mural Movement blanketed the Southwest with images of mestizo and chicano culture and engaged the public in discussion of subjects such as labor organization and presidential politics.  Since then, murals have become an essential feature of the American landscape, a celebration of the nation’s diversity and spirit of freedom.  They have provided an important avenue of expression for members of underrepresented groups, allowing them hard-won entry into the cultural discourse.  As records of otherwise untold histories and capsules of cultural heritage, murals are one of the most powerful and important forms of speech.

As public artistic statements, which are often politically charged, murals have attracted quite a lot of anger and violence – the destruction of Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural in 1933 for its inclusion of an image of Lenin is the most famous example.  Yet, the public nature of the mural and its tradition as a medium of social and political discourse garner it special constitutional protections. Murals are presented in squares, streets, and parks, arenas that the Supreme Court has called “quintessential public forums” that are “used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” 

The political message of Villa’s mural gives it the highest constitutional protection. Its destruction is, therefore, much more significant “mistake” than Mayor Daley would have it, it is a violation of one of our most deeply cherished rights – the right to express an opinion without being silenced by a public official. For anyone who still cares about First Amendment protections the Mayor’s making light of the Alderman’s brutal act is as sinister as the Balcer’s refusal to apologize.

You can contact the Alderman and express your thoughts here:
3659 S. Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60609
jbalcer@cityofchicago.org
(773) 254-6677