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Blu says MOCA's removal of his mural amounts to censorship

Reaction from street artists is mixed after the museum whitewashes antiwar painting. MOCA director calls it a communication mishap that would have offended nearby V.A. hospital and war memorial.

December 15, 2010|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • Graffiti artist Blu paints an antiwar mural on the wall of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary downtown. The museum commissioned the work but then had it whitewashed so as not to offend the nearby V.A. hospital and Japanese American war memorial.
Graffiti artist Blu paints an antiwar mural on the wall of MOCA's Geffen… (Justin T. Ho / For the Los…)

The Italian street artist Blu, whose anti-war mural was removed from the wall of the Geffen Contemporary building last week before the public could see it, has called the destruction of his mural by the Museum of Contemporary Art a form of censorship. Others say it was spectacularly bad planning on the part of the museum, which did not receive a proposal from the artist in advance of his starting work.

MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch said Monday that he ordered the whitewash of the mural because its imagery — coffins draped in dollar bills — was insensitive to a neighborhood that includes a Veterans Affairs hospital and a war memorial to Japanese American soldiers. Deitch, who had engaged Blu to paint the mural in the run-up to MOCA's "Art in the Street" exhibition in April, said he intended to confer with Blu on his plan for the wall before the artist began painting. The two were unable to meet, he said, when Blu's travel plans changed and Deitch left for an art fair in Miami. He said Blu began the mural while he was out of town.

One notable street artist — who at one time was represented by Deitch's former gallery in New York, Deitch Projects — was sympathetic to the director's actions and hoped that the episode would not affect the street art show.

"This is a complex situation that could have been avoided altogether with better communication," Shepard Fairey, best known for his "Hope" painting of then-candidate Barack Obama, said in an e-mailed statement. "I'm not a fan of censorship but that is why I, and many of the other artists of the show, chose to engage in street art for its democracy and lack of bureaucracy. … However, a museum is a different context with different concerns."

"The situation is unfortunate but I understand MOCA's decision," Fairey said.

Other street artists and gallery owners who exhibit work in the genre questioned MOCA's handling of Blu; some asked why MOCA wasn't prepared for a controversial work from him.

"Street artists, especially graffiti artists, like to push the button. So when you're commissioning artists to do something on such a big scale, you get what you ask for," said Brian Lee, owner of Hold Up Art. "When you say 'Go at it, do what you're gonna do,' you have to expect graffiti artists are going to do that — try to get attention. That's a big mentality for street artists — 'let's see what we can get away with.' "

Alex Poli Jr., a street muralist since the early '90s (he goes by "Man One") and owner of downtown's Crewest gallery, said Deitch should have stood behind Blu's work.

"Once [MOCA] put it up, they should defend the art they're commissioning," Poli said. "They know what Blu's work is like — he critiques things and some of his subject matter is poignant and not pretty. This is Blu, that's what he's known for."

Poli said he thought artists who had been asked to participate in MOCA's street art show were trying to stay out of the conversation about the mural and its removal. "They're being silent because they don't want to jeopardize the opportunity to be in the exhibit," he said. "The thing with street art is, you can't cage it. And MOCA, as a museum, is trying to cage it. This is making me worried that maybe they don't know how to manage a show. This is the last thing I would have expected for them to do."

Gallery manager-curator Medvin "Med" Sobio of Mid-City Arts disagreed. "I feel Jeffrey Deitch is getting a bad rap. Something like that — graffiti and street art — it's a sensitive subject. [MOCA has] the right to do whatever they want to do with their wall — it's their choice to make. He's bringing this show to the MOCA for the first time — and yet he's getting a bad rap."

Guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal took a more macro perspective on where cultures collide. "This situation is endemic — it's not about Jeffrey Deitch and/or Blu. It's a classic cautionary conundrum of our culture. It happens over and over again. Not just in Los Angeles, but all over the country." Conal was not without a sense of humor about the situation, however. "I thought the mural looked really good — I thought it was a cautionary tale about how much it costs to park downtown."

Fairey acknowledged the potential for an uneasy relationship between the often-guerrilla mode of street art and more traditional art institutions.

"Street art or graffiti purists are welcome to pursue their art on the streets as they always have without censorship," Fairey said in his statement. "I think that though MOCA wants to honor the cultural impact of the graffiti/street art movement, it only exists in its purist form in the streets from which it arose."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jori Finkel and David Ng contributed to this report.

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