Wide Open To Criticism: The Aftermath of Wide Open Walls

The murals painted in a two week span for Sacramento’s Wide Open Walls festival are a sight to behold. Forty murals in a fortnight is ambitious.

Scratch that, 39.

New Zealand artist Askew One’s mural at Pipeworks Climbing and Fitness center is now a white shell, painted over at the request of the owner. Touchstone Climbing, proprietor of the Sacramento location, wrote on Twitter, “We are saddened by the misunderstanding but look forward to providing another mural canvas in the future.”

With the artist leaving the Pipeworks mural incomplete over a disagreement with the festival, the erasing of his art raises an important question about Wide Open Walls: Who is this festival for?

Godhead of Wide Open Walls David Sobon is ready for the backlash. He knows that Pipeworks plans to paint over its mural as he discusses it the Friday morning following the festival. According to Touchstone’s statement, the mural was left unfinished due to a conflict between the artist Askew One and WOW. Sobon declined to comment further, and Askew One did not respond to a request for comment.

Today, all that remains is a drone-vision video produced by the festival:

“Anything that gets done in this town has haters,” Sobon says. “I can take it.”

Saturday morning though, Askew One, an artist with 17,000 Twitter followers and 89,700 Instagram followers, posts an eight-slide statement beginning, “We need to have a conversation about mural festivals.”

Artist Askew One’s unfinished mural on North C Street has been painted over.

The artist writes that he’s witnessed the evolution of the mural festival. The origins are small, casually organized graffiti jams that evolve into international festivals. Early on it was about getting graffiti art accepted and embraced so that their art could become public.

Now, he views the events as “more layered in politics” than ever before. He’s benefited and for that he is grateful, but the intersection of interests that become involved with an international festival–corporate, community and investor–creates “more parties involved, trickier wheeling [and] dealing behind the scenes and an ever growing distrust.”

Sobon is prepared. Graffiti artists, namely those who paint on illegal walls, understand art as temporary. Local participant Ernie Upton, who painted with graffiti artist Lopan on North B Street in the Dos Rios Triangle, expects their piece to last a month, if that. But, he’s used to the realities of guerilla public art, where one can paint a piece, then return the next morning to take a photo–and find it already painted over.

“Ours is on an available building,” Upton says. “Ours will probably be one of the first to go. That’s part of the culture though.”

  • Mural by Ernie Upton and graffiti artist Lopan.

Sobon speaks the language. “Murals are temporary art. I’m going to go on a campaign to raise money to put an anti-UV coating on these murals so that they last for generations. But every landlord owns the art.”

This happened last year with Sacramento Mural Festival, which disbanded after its first run. A mural painted on the garage doors of a warehouse connected to Fox & Goose was restored to its original white coat not long after its completion.

“They can say I don’t like these pink roses, I’m going to paint over it,” Sobon says.

He is prepared to say that losing one mural comes with the territory. But he’s also versed in the history. The Wide Open Walls website declares this city as having produced over 600 murals in 40 years, many of which are still present.

Take Estaban Villa’s “Metamorphosis” on the parking structure at 3rd and L streets. It has remained for 40 years and was recently coated in a special preservative layer. The mural would not exist were it not for the efforts of the Royal Chicano Air Force, an art and activist collective, in the 1970s. The RCAF carried a very specific message of spreading chicano culture and history, it fought for preservation and against erasure.

What is Wide Open Walls providing? An aesthetic facelift to alleys, taupe walls, and urban wastelands. Some artists, like Bryan Valenzuela, made political statements with the opportunity. Others like Waylon Horner were part of discussions with the communities to create art that did not impose on the history.

  • Mural by Bryan Valenzuela.

Concerns of art washing, exploitation and gentrification cling to urban renewal projects like this, but Sobon says he was considerate. He spoke with Sol Collective about gentrification in discussing mural locations in Oak Park. Sobon counts it as a real concern.

“If we’re improving neighborhoods, I think it’s a good thing.” he says. “Gentrification will happen whether I put art on the walls or not.”

The backlash gets realer by the day. Despite Sobon’s sensitivity to the issue, the Horner piece in Oak Park is defaced with white spray paint that reads “GENTRIFY 101: Make it hip! (FUCK THAT).”

Soon after its completion, Waylon Horner’s mural in Oak Park was bombed with an anti-gentrification message.

Upton considered the gentrifying concerns as well, but found the opportunity, stipend and exposure too alluring to pass up. In fact, seeing Askew One on the list of artists was a deciding factor.

“There are a handful of bitter artists that don’t want us to take the bait,” he says. “Is this another way of fooling us and making us gentrify the city for low amounts? It’s tough to say.”

Wide Open Walls could be viewed as being about attention and capitalizing on those eyeballs.

Sobon includes “earned media impressions” among the positives that came from the festival. He also mentions art being part of a daily conversation, community engagement, paying the artists that contributed and raising $20,000 for nonprofits ($10,000 of which went to Friends of the Arts Commision) from the Wall Ball. But earned media impressions is specifically about marketing data and publicity.

The festival hired an independent company to measure the marketing data. They found $7.5 million in earned media impressions, which is not the festival’s actual earnings, but rather the publicity gained organically. This takes the form of television segments, features stories in local publications or spotlights in major arts publications like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, and social media–namely all the Instagrams. This is how the festival will sell itself going forward. Sobon says last year’s earned media impressions were $2.1 million.

Look at the Instagram of Blanket Marketing Group, one of the presenting partners of WOW, and you’ll find a post that quotes Marketoonist founder Tom Fishburne: “The best marketing doesn’t feel like marketing.Could the same be said of the festival? The best art washing doesn’t feel like art washing?

In Askew One’s Instagram post, he expresses concern over organizers’ communication and intentions when it comes to reproduction of an artist’s works. It feels relevant to WOW: “If we feel you are [up-front] about your intention and you can show us as transparently as possible how it will work/how costs will be distributed we will be more receptive than finding out afterwards from a [third party].”

Sobon calls the stipend given to the WOW artists “fives times more than they got at Art Hotel,” but admits “it’s still not enough.” Upton would not disclose how much he received for his mural, but said it was more than what he made in the last year on his art. Sobon says WOW paid expenses, all materials were donated and several meals were provided–including special artist-only dinners that gave locals the opportunity to network with the international visitors.

“My goal is to increase that stipend so there’s nobody paying more for murals than me,” he says.

Artist Askew One points out in his Instagram statement that there is a difference between commissioned mural festival pieces and commercial work. A piece that alters a city’s skyline as commercial work would cost between $50,0000 and $100,000. A mural festival blurs that line in the sense that that same piece is often lower than the commercial rate, but the exchange is creative control, covered expenses and the opportunity to bring your work on a large scale to a new city.

But, as Askew One points out, miscommunication regarding the building owner or tenant’s fee for the piece, owner’s expectations, and how much of that fee is being rolled into the festival’s running costs can be taken as insincere.

“Ultimately,” Askew One writes, “I think I’m going to collate a list of best [practices] I’ve observed from all the festivals and put it out there for everyone to consider or adopt.”

As for Sobon, he is already thinking of next year’s festival. “All I’ve done is create a freaking monster.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include responses to requests for details on the dispute between artist Askew One and Wide Open Walls festival organizers.


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Blake Gillespie
Blake Gillespie is a freelance journalist based in Sacramento. He's a former co-owner of Impose Magazine and has contributed at the Sacramento News & Review, the Sacramento Bee, the East Bay Express, Comstock's and Vice.com. His decade-plus of experience is in music, arts, sports, political and culture coverage.

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