Mural mystery: Was graffiti overt vandalism or a publicity stunt?

Call it a mural mystery.

Sometime over the holidays, someone spray painted the words “This is not art” across a mural that was part of Canvas Outdoor Museum, an art festival in downtown West Palm Beach in November.

A day or two before New Year's Day, someone spray painted "This is not art" on this mural.

A day or two before New Year’s Day, someone spray painted “This is not art” on this mural.

The graffiti wasn’t up for very long. The Downtown Development Authority removed it a day or two ago, so the mural – on the back of a building at 330 Clematis Street — is back to normal.

But the incident raises questions. Was it vandalism or a publicity stunt by the artist? And if it was indeed vandalism, might it discourage artists from participating in future outdoor art programs?

The pink mural, which is visible from Datura Street, shows three cartoon faces with dollar bills in the mouth, eyes and ears – a play off the saying “Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.’’

It was painted by Los Angeles-based artist Kai Guetta, who goes by “Kai.’’ Go to the artist’s website, kaiart.com, and the cover page includes a curious marketing headline: “This is not art.’’

The mural as it looked Monday at noon -- a day or so after the graffiti was removed.

The mural as it looked Monday at noon — a day or so after the graffiti was removed.

Guetta said he had nothing to do with the graffiti and was discouraged to learn that his mural had been defaced.

“It’s kind of ironic because I have a commercial name, ‘This is not art.’ It’s weird,’’ he said.

He suggested that one of his admirers might have been responsible for “tagging” the mural. “If I would have done it, I would have at last made the lettering pretty,’’ he said.

Before the graffiti was removed, Guetta, who is in Los Angeles, said he hoped local artists or the DDA would repair the mural by painting over the graffiti.

But he is worried the vandalism will prompt local officials to remove his mural.

In November, Guetta claimed that Canvas organizer Nicole Henry told him the mural would have to be painted over because it was too controversial.

“She said, ‘I think we’re going to have to paint your wall white. A lot of people in the city are upset with the mural and don’t like it,’’’ said Guetta, who mentions the incident on his website.

Henry denied making that comment. She said she only told Kai that the mural was different from what organizers were expecting him to paint, but she never threatened to remove it.

Still, Guetta said, “My biggest fear is that because someone didn’t want it a couple of months ago, now they will use this (graffiti) as an excuse to paint over it.’’

Guetta does take artistic freedoms when it comes to promoting himself. For example, he prefers not to have photographs taken showing his face. He prefers to doctor the photos so a cartoon or white circle appears over his face.

Artist Kai Guetta poses in November front of his work-in-progress. He insisted on his face being whited out to promote his anonymity.

Artist Kai Guetta poses in November front of his work-in-progress. He insisted on his face being whited out to promote his anonymity.

Henry said there are no immediate plans to paint over any of the murals. But she said some could be covered with new murals as part of Canvas 2016, which is tentatively set for downtown West Palm Beach from Nov. 11-20.

None of the other large murals from Canvas 2015 have been vandalized. But a small typewriter stencil by the artist Wrdsmith was smeared with gold paint in late November. That stencil, called “Love letter” appeared at the bottom left of the Kai mural.

“Street art is not permanent art. It is always changing,’’ Henry said. “Sometimes it changes legally and sometimes it changes illegally.

“I hope everyone in this city can respect these murals because these are some of the most respected artists from around the world.’’

Vandals shattered beer bottles against one outdoor mural in November, in the final days of the Canvas festival.

But Raphael Clemente, the DDA’s executive director, said he agrees with Henry’s contention that the vandalism will not discourage artists from participating in the next Canvas event.

“There’s been a lot of graffiti all around the city. I see it all over the place but I don’t think this is anything more than just taggers, a bunch of young kids who wanted some notoriety,’’ Clemente said.

Many of the Canvas artists “are not ignorant to the fact that their art is in the public realm,’’ he said.

“They’re street artists. They know there are people out there who are jealous of their work.’’

 

 

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