Recent additions to the Paint Memphis project, murals depicting “satanic demons” and “cursed images” were painted throughout the city by local artists. Although technically adhering to the guidelines set by the city, they weren’t exactly the murals the City Council had in mind. The Council began protests, stating that the murals were distasteful. At the March 6, 2018 City Council meeting, the Council voted to paint over the murals and for future public art to be decided on for the level of appropriateness. But with no guidelines being broken by the artists, this action by the City Council is seen by some in the community to be censorship- a direct violation of the First Amendment.
The fact is, these artists followed the rules set forth by the city: no gang signs, no depictions of sex or violence, no foul language and no nudity. These murals depicted images of zombies, demons, and even one of Elvis with a snake coming out of his mouth. Some flagged for being “distasteful” however, are simply of a sad woman in a broken mirror, or portraits of African-Americans with red highlights. Community members were reportedly “horrified” by these artworks and Council members were reached out to take action.
Chairman Boyd sponsored this proposal, and it held place in the meeting as Item 34. Ten Council members voted in favor, with Councilman Jones refraining and Councilman Morrison absent. The proposal passed within a minute of being introduced. Despite saying nothing during the meeting, Jones was later interviewed and stated that he refrained because of the issues of legality in removing the murals. Because of the protections over artwork done on public property by Paint Memphis, it is actually not legal for the city to paint over them. Mayor Strickland said attorneys were looking into the matter, but that didn’t stop the proposal from being introduced or passing.
Those who work for Paint Memphis and a large part of the Memphis community has found the proposal a complete overstep onto First Amendment rights. The protesters’ consensus is that by the artists following the guidelines set by the city, the Council People are picking and choosing what is “appropriate” for the city. Now, these protests and the investigation into legality is bad enough, but then the city dug their grave even deeper.
In the same week as this city council meeting, Public Works crews were instructed to paint over the six murals that sparked controversy and, apparently, terror in some. Instead, they painted over seven completely irrelevant murals. The damage to the artworks is approximately $35,000. The city is defensive, with Public Works Director Robert Knetch saying that it was a “miscommunication, completely unintentional.” The act of censorship regarding the artwork is illegal and a red flag in the case of democracy.
The mistake of seven random murals being painted over in the meantime seems to be an act of just plain ol’ stupidity, as these murals contained works like: a depiction of the Memphis’ tiger mascot, some swirls, and flowers. Action from protestors is unclear, however, with no organized protests taking place and the main backlash coming across on social media feeds and in the comments sections of news sites that have reported on it. It seems to be for now that no redemption will come for these artists.
*Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki, “University of Memphis Area”, Creative Commons Zero license