A mural in the center of a bustling pedestrian plaza in Jersey City recently got painted over. This city has reportedly said the art was only supposed to be temporary. But others saw its removal as an act of censorship. The 33-year-old artist who painted it said every time someone would complain, he was forced to change the mural until ultimately, it was gone.
It took about a month for Gary Wynans, aka Mr. abILLity, to paint a 33-foot squared Monopoly board on the street. He said the gentrification that's happening in Jersey City is what inspired it.
"There's a lot of Jersey City that's been here a long time and there's a lot of the newly developed and it's kind of like a battle between the two," Wynans said. "Since Monopoly is almost the game version of that battle because there are low and high properties, I thought it would be interesting just for the sake of art to make a Jersey City Monopoly board."
Before he painted the mural, he said the city asked him to make changes to his design. And he wasn't surprised. He knew some things would never fly.
"I have common sense. I know that the city of Jersey City is not going to pay me to depict a cop as porky pig," he said.
So he changed it. And while the original Monopoly board has a "Luxury Tax," Wynans designed his with a "Gentrification Tax," but that got changed too, to "Hipster Tax." It wasn't enough. Once the mural was painted, people were still offended by other things, like his depiction of a Jersey City waterfront monument which he named simply, "Cool Statue." But that cool statue turned out to be a memorial to victims of a Polish massacre during World War II.
"I feel like people are so sensitive. Its a game. Its fun. It's not like a history board of the facts that have gone on," said Wynans. "It's just a fun board game. It's a cool statue."
Amy Wilson, a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in the Visual and Critical Studies Program, said she wasn't surprised by how badly things turned out.
"It just felt like one day this thing showed up in the middle of the street very kind of aggressively and I didn't feel like there was a comprehensive program by the city to explain what the piece was about to really make it part of the community," said Wilson.
Wilson, an artist who lives in Jersey City herself, said cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore have a more organized application process for public murals.
"Those applications are then vetted by a group of local artists, museum curators, arts professionals, people like that," she said.
Wilson blamed Jersey City for not standing by the artist once the mural was painted. WNYC reached out twice to a Jersey City spokeswoman but got no response.
Jersey City isn't the only one grappling with public art. Svetlana Mintcheva from the National Coalition Against Censorship said there's been about five similar controversies in the last several months, including a sculpture in Riverside Park that was a comment on racial violence. Mintcheva said it was important for a city to have a process for responding when the public complains.
"Because you don't want to tell people we don't care about what you think. We care," she said. "Lets have a conversation. Sometimes you bring an artist to talk to people and their vision of the work entirely changes. They see it in a very different way."
In Jersey City, as people complained about Wynans Monopoly board, he said he was forced to make changes. Beyond the "Cool Statue," people complained that he painted a brown person behind the jail bars, saying it reinforced racial stereotypes. He tried to explain it was a self-portrait. In the end, the jail box got painted over.
Wynans said what bothered him the most was when the city asked him to put the name of a local real estate developer on the mural. He said he complied, reluctantly.
"I was very heartbroken about that," Wynans said. "As a matter of fact I had put it on a square that has a heart and I added a crack to the square because I felt like it was cracking my own heart."
Now Wynans' mural is gone. The city painted over it. But the artist said during the time the Monopoly board was up, many people loved it, including kids seen in an Instagram photo jumping from one property to the next.
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