A few months ago, CL profiled a mural program just getting underway in St. Petersburg’s newly christened Warehouse Arts District. The idea, reported CL’s Megan Voeller, was to create an enclave “where the exteriors of galleries and artists’ studios become living canvases, too,” like the popular Wynwood gallery district in Miami.No one apparently told the city’s Graffiti Management Program. Last week, a representative left word with building owner John Delangias that the first completed mural, painted on the side of Delangias’ coffee warehouse at Emerson Avenue and 24th Street S., would have to be covered up.
“I’m stunned and speechless,” said project organizer and advocate Pat Jennings. “These are commissioned murals. This is not a random act of vandalism.”
The idea for the murals originated with noted glass artist Duncan McClellan and sculptor Dan Painter, both of whom live and work in the Warehouse District. They asked Jennings, owner of Central Art Supply Company, to invite muralists to take part, and he got written permission from Delangias, the owner of New Dawn Coffee Company, to use his warehouse wall.
Voeller, CL’s visual art critic, commended the “inventive freestyling” on the warehouse mural, which was created by Acud-AKuT and Center One. They’re both recognized artists; the Morean Arts Center will feature them in Leave a Message: Urban Art in Florida, opening June 9.
The graffiti officer, who visited on Thursday, left his own kind of message: a business card, no name, and a promise to be back. Delangias (known around the neighborhood as “Coffee John”) said the officer was in the neighborhood photographing two other sites and noticed the warehouse mural.
“The guy from the city abatement program said because of the way it was done, it was graffiti,” Delangias said. “Why is it graffiti? Maybe if we knew, the artists could fix it.”
Bob Turner can answer that question. He’s administrative coordinator at the city’s sanitation department, which oversees the graffiti abatement program.
“What constitutes graffiti is anything that has writing on it,” explained Turner. But his department does not remove graffiti; it simply makes recommendations.
“We have no intention of covering it,” he said of Coffee John’s mural. “We noticed it and turned it over to code enforcement.”
The city’s graffiti removal program started in 1995. Anyone can report graffiti by calling the hotline at 727-893-7394. According to the website, there were 2,200 cases of graffiti reported in 1995. In 2006, there were less than 600 incidents.
Mark Michaels learned the city’s fine line between graffiti and public art 12 years ago. Michaels posted a series of poster-sized versions of drawings he had done around the city.
“I was putting them in cool urban areas like dumpsters and telephone poles,” Michaels said. “Those were all violations of the graffiti laws.”
A project involving a 55-gallon oil drum placed in front of the Tampa Bay Times office downtown got him caught by the city.
“They thought it was a bomb,” Michaels said. “They called the bomb squad and noticed the artwork on the drum was similar to the posters.”
St. Petersburg fined him $100 to take down each poster, totaling $8,000. In court, the judge reduced the fine to $200, which Michaels paid.
“I never felt like the city was anti-art,” Michaels said. “When you are a policeman, you have to do your job.”
Dan Painter, who has owned a studio in the warehouse district for the last 12 years, says the city’s sanctioning of the district has been a double-edged sword.
“There were world-class artists five blocks from here who left,” Painter said. “They came here to be left alone to work.”
But when questionable foot traffic gets too close, or unwelcome visitors try to come inside, Painter makes one call and the city is there to help.
Around the corner from the coffee warehouse, Zen Glass Studio recently commissioned artists Bask and Tes One to adorn its wall with a mural. The city’s graffiti fleet has not stopped by to drop off their card — yet.
As for Coffee John, he’s hoping the whole controversy goes away.
“To me, art is art,” Delangias said. “I hate to roll over [the mural] after all that work, but I’m not getting into a pissing match with the city.”
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