Vandals defaced a nearly complete street mural outside the Sawdust Art Festival this week, the first time in at least two decades that a publicly displayed artwork in town was targeted for desecration, city officials say.
“I find it incredibly disheartening it would happen in Laguna,” said Sian Poeschl, the city’s cultural arts manager, who reported the vandalism to police.
The Sawdust mural installation that began last week comes as seven other eye-catching murals have surfaced nearby in Laguna Canyon, in a commercial center and the art exhibition space Art-a-Fair. Another artist is to start a hand-drawn mural this weekend behind Kitchen in the Canyon restaurant. None of the other privately commissioned works have been damaged.
Artists Charmaine Olivia and Alec Demarco intended to seal their gift to the Sawdust Festival as required with an anti-graffiti coating. Due to damp weather conditions, they hadn’t yet applied the sealant.
“I’m sure the artists are very upset,” said Poeschl, who was at a loss to explain the motivation behind the blemished work. Efforts to contact the artists at their studio-gallery in San Clemente were unsuccessful.
The artists’ statement describes the work entitled “Goddesses” as one that celebrates four mythological goddesses set against calligraphy and influenced by John Lennon’s lyrics for “Imagine.” The artists completed a work similar in scale and design through House of Trestles, a San Clemente surf hostel with an artist in residency, according to a March post by the online magazine Art & Cake.
However, since work commenced on the Sawdust mural, the artists revised their planned approach and painted out bright white hieroglyphic-like writing. It’s possible they responded to criticism of the mural in progress, which surfaced last week on Instagram in comments from followers of street-art collector Aaron Von Ossko. They suggest the artists appropriated the style of Retna, a well-known Los Angeles street artist known for using stylized letters known as runes.
“If the problem wasn’t there, then why the reaction,” asked Poeschl. “Artists who are influenced by other artists is the history of art,” she pointed out.
Poeschl also pointed out Los Angeles street artists frequently find their work painted over, which she thinks is reflective of a lack of cultural respect and competition.
“I hope this is an isolated incident,” she said. A 9/11 memorial in Heisler Park three times has been vandalized in recent years, though Poeschl speculates the disfigurement was unintentional, caused by people standing on the sculpture. An art in public places ordinance enacted in 1986 has yielded a public art collection of nearly 90 permanent works, some on city property and others on private property.
At the Sawdust Festival, police seized a spray can and a glove and intend to investigate the incident, said police spokesman Jordan Villwock.
The blacked out markings across the mural appear to lack significance to at least one expert. “There is nothing there that suggests gangs to me; no monikers, no gang names, no numbers. I’d feel pretty safe in saying this is not gang graffiti,” said UC Irvine Professor George Tita, who specializes in criminology.
Whether the mural will be repainted is up to the artists, said Sawdust general manager Natalie Haug. She said artist board members told her of feeling “shocked” and “devastated” as the grounds are “a space where we can celebrate art.”
This is the third year muralists devised a street scene across plywood panels lining the sidewalk near the festival’s entry, a project organized by Laguna Beach resident Adam Casper. Calls to him went unreturned.
While Haug said she heard some comments about the mural looking similar to other art works, generally reaction had been positive from artists on the grounds, busy erecting booths before the show opens next month. “We showered them with praise,” she said.
She wondered about the ethos of street artists, who cultivate controversy in part because they often spray works clandestinely and without permits.
“A fan base creates another heart beat of its own; they appreciate it for its notoriety,” Haug said.
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