Artist of erased Wide Open Walls mural speaks out

A screen shot from a Wide Open Walls promotional video for artist Askew One's now-painted-over mural outside Sacramento Pipeworks Climbing and Fitness.

In Monday’s  Wide Open To Criticism: The Aftermath of Wide Open Walls it was reported that New Zealand artist Askew One did not respond to a request for comment regarding his sudden departure from the festival and unfinished mural. The following day, he replied to a Twitter request for answers with a series of tweets that filled in the blanks.

The artist’s thread painted Wide Open Walls as exploiting artists financially with the end-game of displacing the homeless. “I was told ‘it’s great you’re the first of many murals down there, it’ll attract new business and push the homeless people out of the area,’” he wrote.

A screen shot from the WOW promotional video for Askew One’s mural shows a homeless woman walking with her belongings.

“And I will not ever be used as a tool to further alienate those already marginalised…”

Askew One’s mural appeared on an industrial shed to the side of Pipeworks Climbing and Fitness center, wrapping around to the backside of the building. The location is just north of downtown on North 16 Street.

It’s an industrial sector with warehouses, shuttered businesses, a casino and a dark corridor colloquially known as the Pee Tunnel. Less than a mile away is Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a campus that services the homeless community with programs such as the Mustard Seed emergency school for children experiencing homelessness.

The big lesson that Wide Open Walls organizer David Sobon said he and festival colleagues learned from Askew One’s outspoken disagreement is that without proper contracts between the artist and the landlord there is too much confusion.

“It’s critical to have everything detailed in a contract signed by both the artist and the landlords,” he said. “And then maybe this confusion wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

In a previous interview, Sobon talked about the murals’ drastic improvement to downtown’s Improv Alley between Seventh and Eighth streets. He called it “the second worst alley as far as crime, drugs and homeless poop on the ground.”

“This is my fucking backyard and my wife and I don’t like it,” he added.

Voices: River City chose to omit this dialogue from the article. It read as an isolated complaint. Justifying its inclusion in a criticism of the festival would require further context. Which is what makes Askew One’s comments on the festival significant to the conversation. His departure from the festival appears to be directly tied to his art’s use as a mechanism in gentrification.

In a follow-up interview Sobon said he is working to restore the relationship with Askew One, beginning with inviting him back to paint in Sacramento.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do,” he said. “He was disappointed and I understand why he was disappointed. Hopefully it better clears up the circumstances.”

Touchstone Climbing, the parent company of Pipeworks, requested their previous statement remain their only statement.

Askew One’s comments Tuesday further explain the removal of his mural. He said the festival sold a mural concept based on older work that does not reflect his current style. He said the festival fabricated a story about him leaving the mural purposely unfinished. But, he added, the problem was in the expectation of a face appearing on his mural, which is an ongoing theme within his work.

Askew neglected to include a face on his work for a reason.

“I will say I did [choose] not to paint a face as I sensed I was being manipulated [and] for another good reason,” he wrote. That reason, according to him, was that he was told the mural will help drive out the homeless in the area.

“And I will not ever be used as a tool to further alienate those already [marginalized, and] I will never attach someone’s face to that!”

A message posted on the side of the Pipeworks shed warns against unsolicited painting.

After the mural was removed, a giant smiley face was painted on the side of Pipeworks’ fresh white wall. That, too, was painted over, and a sign was posted on the wall, presumably by the business.

“Though we thought your smiley face was funny, we now have overnight security staying onsite. You are also being videotaped as you read this,” the sign read.

Askew One was asked to return to finish the mural or allow the festival to enlist another artist to finish it. He says he offered to return provided he be compensated or they could remove his work. The problem was resolved with his permission to erase his work.

“Yeah it was hard to stomach and I’m sure it will be denied as the last email I got boasted about money they raised for the homeless,” read his last tweet.

Sobon said there was no such email. Askew One has not responded to a request to view the email he referenced.

As for the bombing of Waylon Horner’s mural in Oak Park that read, “Gentrify 101: Make it hip! (fuck that),” Sobon disagrees with the idea of artists carrying out gentrification in Oak Park.

“Obviously I think they are destroying private property,” he said of whomever bombed the Horner mural. “I don’t believe art is contributing to the issue of gentrification. We paid an artist to put up a beautiful wall and they did their job. That message has been repeated a number of times in other circumstances in Oak Park and for some reason they chose to paint it on a wall, more than likely because they thought it would get attention and they did.”

In Askew One’s Instagram post he mentioned writing a best practices essay for mural festivals, amassing his experiences both good and bad, for everyone to consider and adopt. Sobon says he looks forward to reading it.

“He’s part of the biggest crew out there,” he said. “What can I as a festival organizer learn from him? I’m absolutely open. I hope to be on panels in the future where this stuff gets discussed. Not just on a local level but an international level.”

During the festival a slogan was popularized among public officials, specifically Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg: “We paint walls to bring more people in, not build walls to keep more people out.”

It’s a slogan that will lose its charm if the attached festival fails to serve all Sacramentans.

This article has been updated to clarify a quote.


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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 His decade-plus of experience is in music, arts, sports, political and culture coverage.