Everybody is a Critic

Photo taken by Mr. Blank

Last Wednesday night I decided to give Andrea a break and take the kids out to Chick-fil-A. Sometimes this can be a hectic endeavor, but I almost always enjoy it. Something about enduring a frenetic dinner with a 5 year-old and a 19 month-old gives me a chance to work on my Daddy skills as well as spend some time with my kids, sans Mommy.

On the way to the restaurant, I was going to be passing by the mural that I'm currently working on behind Victory Vintage Home. I always slow down each time I happen to find myself in the vicinity of the mural just so I can try and view it fresh, with new eyes. That way I might be able to see if there are any problems with the thing, to see what might need to be done next to it. Anyway, it was 7pm, and with the winter hours it was already dark. But no matter, because I knew that there would be plenty of amber light shining upon the mural, giving me just enough lighting to check up on it.

As I pulled up next to the wall, I noticed an unusual amount of activity going on in front of the family in the middle of the mural. Now, I didn't think much of this because I knew that Victory shares its parking lot with a pizza restaurant and a bar nearby. It's not unusual for some kind of activity to be going on in that parking lot, but because it was a Wednesday night, and because the 'activity' consisted of about 4 or 5 teenage boys clamoring about, looking like they were trying to climb up onto the roof of the store, it caught my eye. At least one guy was being hoisted up by another. My first thought was, "Oh, they must've thrown something up onto the roof of the store and they're trying to retrieve it."

So I drove on, not pulling into the parking lot, not confronting the teenagers. I felt that it probably wasn't anything serious.

But then I the more thought about it, the more strange that whole scenario started to play out in my head. If they were just getting something up off the roof of the store, why were they acting so suspicious? Suddenly, my initial thought of an innocent situation didn't seem so plausible. I turned around to head back to the store.

No one was there. No teenagers, no pickup truck that was parked in front of the mural. I pulled up to the side of the wall and did not see any movement on the store's rooftop. I started to pull away until I caught a glimpse of reflected light coming off of the mural, as if it was wet. But it wasn't wet all over, like it rained or anything, but only on specific areas -- right on each of the heads of the family that I had painted. I backed up and parked right next to the family and got out to take a closer look.

Yup. The mural had been pissed on. There was urine running down the face of the Dad, the Mom and the little girl, with scuff marks from the boys' shoes here and there. Because the parents' heads were situated higher than your typical crotch height, what I saw those boys doing was trying to pee right on the heads by being hoisted up by one of their buddies. This was not your run of the mill, "hey i gotta take a piss" moment. This was done on purpose. I also noticed that some of them had spat on the heads, too. This was deliberate.

Well, there was nothing I could do about it then. I got back in the car and went ahead to eat with the kids. I then waited until after the kids were in bed when I went back to the wall and doused the affected areas with hot water. No harm done, all is good as new.

So, this got me to thinking, why did they do this?. Well, there are two several possible explanations:

1. I think it was game night that night and so these guys had just come from the school with heightened adrenaline. When they drove by the wall, they decided that it would be kinda funny to desecrate the faces to this mural because it was so convenient. Just some silly tomfoolery done by your typical average teenager boys. No big deal.

2. These boys, being black, were not too keen by this all-white family and wanted to do something about it. Make a statement, to some degree. With piss and spit.

Do you know what I think? I think it's a little bit of both. Decatur (where the store is) is a very cosmopolitan area, with a great mix of both white and black. Even where there may be unity in some communities, there'll always be some distention and disputes in others. When I first thought about the idea of using these illustrations for this mural, I did have second thoughts about putting this very vanilla white family right in the middle of the mural. My take on murals is that there should always be some sort of connection to the community. People who live in the area where a mural is going up should at least have some ownership to this new work of art that's being put up. After all, they are the ones who will be seeing it on a daily basis. It's a sort of artistic call and response, a give and receive, if you will. Some murals will be completely community oriented, possibly including images and faces of the people who live there. Some will be more commercial in nature, but hopefully offer something more to what that particular store provides for the community. The Victory Vintage Home mural falls into the latter category.

So, when I began the mural, whenever I had someone call out or pull up next to me, I always cringed a bit for fear of some possible criticism from people who possibly wouldn't get it. But all that cringing was for naught because everyone has been so cool with the mural. I've received nothing but praise. Everyone seems to like it.

The recent incident kinda put me back on defensive mode. I'm over it now, because I realize that I can't make everyone like the painting. I can't force anyone to like my artwork. All I can do is just do my thang and hope that everyone accepts it. That's really what ART is all about anyway. I once had an instructor who laid it out for me: Art never said to like me, but to accept me. Accept this, if you can, and eventually you will understand it.

If the teens were trying to make a statement, I understand. I can understand if this mural represents something that they might be frustrated about on a daily basis: discrimination and racism -- of which, I have no right telling them how they should feel. But I know I'm right to say that they totally and completely misunderstand my intentions with this mural. I'm not trying to say subconsciously that only white people can come into this store. All I was doing was re-appropriating some fun vintage illustrations that featured modern furniture to create a connection with what Lee sold in her store, which of course, is modern furniture. The mural is an extension of the store, and should be taken lightly.

Again, I'm over it now. And I never really got upset with all the urination and expectoration because I know that piss and spit can be washed off, with no worries. But I can't wash off what those guys really think of the mural. Perhaps I am reading too much into this whole thing, but if I'm not, I do hope that they can accept this mural at face value: just something fun that hopefully makes you smile as you drive by.


  1. Yuck, I'm sorry Ward. Kinda discouraging. But boys will be boys no matter what color, socioeconomic background or taste in art. I went to a Christian college where a backwoods "super Christian" wandered on campus and tore down nude drawings that the college had purchased from the artist. And the college went on to apologize for hanging the art and never prosecuted. Needlesss to say I left that art program. Your thoughts are very valid and healthy. Thanks for taking some of the drama out of it and taking a bow to what you are called to do.

  2. That's messed up but i think teenagers just do dumb stuff. I know i did alot of dumb things just cause everybody thought it would be funny at the time but it really wasn't. I dont think it was a black or white thing i think it was a dumb thing. Cause if they really didnt want it up they would have put paint or somthing uo to try and cover it up. Just do you and dont worry about it too much cause you kick major booty with your art.

  3. Man this is messed up that some one totally R. Kelly'ed your work. But I think Dre said it "teenagers just do dumb stuff." I'm sure the convo played out like this, "yo i bet i can piss on those people head." "oh Bet."
    Most teens are to stupid to really think it's a statement. Just idiotic fun. We all do stupid things. Oh by the way your work is very inspiring to me. Hopefully when i venture to ATL in the next few months. I'll try to see this mural.

  4. Thanks, Andre. I think you're right about that -- they were just doing stoopid stuff. I guess I got a little sensitive there. And you're right -- if they wanted to make a statement, they would've done something more permanent, like spray paint.

    Thanks, gkaiou for your comment. I'm glad that my work inspires you. I'm humbled by your words. It's always been an ongoing quest for me to try and make that special connection with people who view my artwork. Glad to see that I connected with you.

    Thanks, guys!

  5. God, Ward--I just read this over at Boing Boing(actually, it's cool they know about you, now I think about it! there's one good thing, anayway), and had to rush over here. I know what feelings that would arouse in me. And I'll say this: the first thought in my head, reading only that some "boys" had pissed and spit upon your mural, was that it was the "happy-face" look of those heads that bugged the kids, and drove them to do it. It's no good desecrating something "edgy" or dark--but those retro people are sooo happy and sweet, and of course those kids haven't any feel for retro art or irony(I know you didn't mean the mural that way, but it well could have been intended ironically or at least a bit sideways by an artist). I only read after I'd formed that opinon that they were black, and that does add another possible dimension--but I am not sure it is that. Is it a largely black neighborhood? if not, I think it's just the urge to despoil something sweet. The retro art that means not only fun design but also a bit of nostalgia for the likes of us artists and adults means nothing to probably really unhappy kids like this. I wish you'd been able to confront them--and twisted their BS by telling them what you do, and how cool it is to draw...I'll bet they'd think differently about it.

  6. Ward, as a man you should realize that peeing on a wall is twice as fun if you can pretend that you're peeing on someone's face while you do it. There's a big wall mural in a kind of tunnel in Winchester,VA, and it has human faces in it, including Abraham Lincoln. Drunk people always pee there, and they always aim for lincoln. Guys just want something to aim for when they pee, and your faces were target practice. I bet if you painted over them as a racially diverse squad of all creeds and colors, people would pee on them with the same uncanny accuracy. It's just fun to pee on giant faces. immature, but fun.

  7. I don't think it's about race. I just think they wanted to pee on the mural because they had nothing better to do.

  8. other than the fact that you're peeing in public.. what is inherently immature about peeing on a face?

  9. "But I know I'm right to say that they totally and completely misunderstand my intentions with this mural...The mural is an extension of the store and should be taken lightly."

    But do your intentions really matter in this case? If Leonardo was just painting the Mona Lisa "for he fun of it" would that diminish the cultural signifigance of the work? Absolutely not. I'm sorry to say, but the context around your painting determines the meaning of the work (which is always in flux) just as much (if not more) than your initial intentions.

    Whatever made the boys pee on your work is as real as any intention you may have had...and just as important.

  10. no worries ward. could have been anything.

    maybe they were all orphans and wanted to show their displeasure at images of "family."

    maybe they were a group of escaped mental patients who all just happened to be in for the same thing: believing they were "clement greenberg.".

    maybe they were a militant dada group taking the "pissing on art" thing beyond duchamp's urinal.

    maybe they were experimented on by the c.i.a. in secret labs and a side effect of these experiments is that they absolutely positively must piss whenever seeing the color pink.

    maybe the girl who just outed one of them in school for having an -extremely- tiny penis has a photo of your mural on her binder and seeing it always throws him into a rage.

    maybe they were voicing displeasure with the establishment itself and your mural just happened to grace the wall?

    like i said could have been anything. in any case no biggie. part of the bargain if you're gonna put your stuff out there on the streets right? let's just hope nothing serious enough ever occurs in front of the mural that you see it on the six o'clock news!

  11. i go with the guy who thinks they just did it because they think pissing on somebody's face is cool and that not one thought was about what the painter was trying to do or say.

    i like the work myself, but i can easily think of places in this country where murals aren't allowed, so celebrate your freedom and don't let a little urine spoil your accomplishments

  12. I find it interesting that you yourself tagged both the race of the urinators and the race of the people in the painting.

    Am I wrong in detecting what might be some after-the-fact sensitivity and defensiveness on your part? If you're making a mural for the community, shouldn't it reflect the whole community?

    Don't they own part of the neighborhood too? And isn't this intentionally or not an act of disrespect in the face of erasure? I'd piss, too. And I'm white.

    And I still like your art.

  13. In Malaysian culture, pissing on murals is a way of showing approval for the piece of art. So maybe the youngsters were Malaysian.

  14. yea... i'd prolly piss on it if i were young and tired of seeing white glittering faces plastered to every flat surface in town.

    gets a little old after a while. i sure hope you're not gunna loose any sleep over this.

  15. Is there some weird male shared understanding about the "fun" of pissing publicly on faces? News to me. "what's inherently mature about peeing on a face"?-! Hmmmmm, yeah, hooookaaaay...
    And as for the guy who thinks you're "defensive" re: some black kids pissing on white faces (which are--hey! CARTOON HEADS, not photos, not straight serious portraits of the Man) which imho makes a difference), ask yourself this: What if the pissers were WHITE, and they were pissing ont he faces of BLACK people on the wall? Gee, I'd bet you might, um, find that racially motivated, just possibly. maybe it was, or wasn't, but admit that you'd assume the worst of them. Doesn't make it right, but it does cut BOTH ways. At least Ward thinks about this and it matters to him. And, I don't know how many of you are artists(probably not many), but forgetting the weird statement that "there are places in the US where you can't have murals"(WTF?)--I guess none of you have imagination enough to think how it would feel to have someone whip it out and urinate all over your hard work that the store owner paid you to paint. Yeah, it's in a public place; I live in L.A., where we have loads of public places with all kinds of murals, some are terrible, some great. But if anyone has the stupidity and crassness to deface or particularly shit or piss on that work, I'd think they were animals, okay? NO ONE has the right to do that. Yes, it's a shared neighborhood. As such it is NOT a place to defile as you feel like it, from littering to urinating on painted walls. What harm did the mural do here? It's simply a retro cartoon mural--I'd say that if the kids had a problem, they should get the eff over it, not Ward!

  16. It's an outdoor mural, boys will be boys. They like something to 'aim' for. Doesn't change once you grow up either, that's why there are targets in the urinals.

    Either way, I know you're taking it personally, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a piss is just a piss.

    Unfortunately, due to the posting on boing-boing, I fear your mural might now attract more attention, and not in a good way.

    I like your stuff. Good luck.

  17. Wow, I was really surprised to see this link on boing boing. Not because I don't think it's worthy but because I live half a mile from victory vintage and drive past your mural every day.

    I can't give any commentary on the why or why not of the action that hasn't already been expressed. All I can say is that as a resident of the neighborhood in quesion and a frequent shopper at victory vintage I think your mural is completely appropriate for the store/neightborhood.

    It really lends something to Lee's store and to the idea of a mixed use district.

    I'm sorry that it has been discouraging but you should know that there are some of us in the neighborhood who not only like but appreciate your work!

  18. It's a beautiful piece of work, and it's terrible that those kids have such disrespect for art, but honestly, if I saw that gleaming white nuclear family of faces on the side of a store in my [also diverse] community, I'd definitely question what the store was trying to say.

    If you want to show what the store "provides the community," maybe you could show to whom they're providing it. Just because no black [brown, yellow, etc.] people appeared in "vintage" commercial advertising doesn't mean they weren't there. Just because it's an homage doesn't mean it has to reflect the prejudice of the era the art originated in.

    If you're inwardly cringing with worry that people are going to misunderstand your intent, maybe there's a reason for that.

  19. Man! Terrible! Looks like a killer mural too :(

    Kids are stupid sometimes. I pass by a mural next to a crappy parking lot all the time and I am amazed that it hasn't been messed with.

  20. I'm sorry to find out about your mural this way, but I haven't been that way in a while. I live down the street and I will definitely stop by to check it out! It looks beautiful from the photograph.

  21. I know there's no excuse for defacing property, but Atlanta has some deep rooted issues. Not every group is going to be nostalgic for that era. I can see it having a similar effect as tagging an area with a rival gang's symbol: It is an icon representing a divisive subject and it could attract someone not-so-wise to do something stupid.


  22. Wow. Okay. Lots of comments all thanks to Boing Boing. That's great. Unfortunately with the floodgates open, many dingers show up to post anonymously, and most of it is not worth responding to because it's obvious that the majority of the commentors did not read my entire post.

    But I'll respond anyway. For the record, I approached the owner Lee to do this mural. Being a collector of old ephemera and mid-century illustration and design, I had some cool illustrations from a 1956 Better Homes & Garden Decorating Book. (I have some of the images from this book scanned and posted about them here, with a mention about the mural at the end of the post.) Considering that Victory Vintage sold modern furniture from the 50's to the 70's, the illustrations seemed perfect for Lee's store. And considering that this mural would be for a particular store, with particular needs, the audience for this mural would be narrowed down. (Remember in my post I said, "Some [murals] will be more commercial in nature, but hopefully offer something more to what that particular store provides for the community. The Victory Vintage Home mural falls into the latter category.")

    I knew that not everyone would be down with the mural. But I also knew that it would be a pretty cool mural to look at, point blank. I'd never seen anything like this on a wall, and so I really wanted to try this out, to see what the illustrations would look like on a larger scale.

    To those who responded, saying something to the effect that shouldn't the mural reflect the whole community, I say yes, it should. But like I mentioned in the post, this mural is a commerical one, for a particular store. In Decatur, where this store is, there is a record store nearby that is black-owned and sells mostly R&B, rap, and hip-hop music. I highly doubt that they would paint a mural with Britney Spears on their wall, would they? Like I mentioned before, the mural is meant to reflect what is being sold in the store. I'm not trying to make any political statement or anything, just having some fun.

    But I ask you all this, especially the artists who may or may not have commented here: if you had painted something that you spent hours and hours on, only to have some idiot teenagers piss on your artwork, would you be nonchalant about it? Especially when you knew that you meant no ill-will with your painting? Would you say to yourself, "Well, I guess I didn't reflect the whole community -- say, I should've been more sensitive to everyone's feelings here because, gosh, there's enough white faces all over town, right?" Or, "Yup, boys will be boys..."

    I highly doubt that you'd be as tough as you come across in some of your comments on this post.

    But I do have to say one more thing to give you all a little background as to why I'm already over this: I'm a graffiti writer. And this is nothing compared to what I had to endure when I first started out painting on walls. I understand the ephemeral nature of the beast when it comes to painting on walls, out in the open, easy access for pissers and spitters and taggers. No problem. Bring it on. As I said in my post, I can't change how others feel about my work, but I can be the better man and just turn the other cheek and keep doing what I'm doing.

    And I'll do just that this weekend, when I get back out there to paint some more.

    Thanks for all the comments.

  23. Hi,

    I just found out about this through boingboing. I'm sorry to hear about this, but if it means anything, i'm hopping on marta to see your mural in a few minutes. It's good that you took this all in stride, but I wouldnt read too much into it. If anything at all, the teenagers raised awareness of your work. You now have one more fan.

  24. If there's any truth in that old adage, "There's no such thing as bad publicity" then getting pissed on is the best thing that could have happened to your mural, Ward. With any luck the regular media will pick up this story from boingboing and you'll be getting commissions to paint murals in Paris and Tokyo, m' man. ;-)

  25. aw, that's too bad ward.

  26. I can't believe they actually peed on your wonderful artwork. I kind of know how you feel. I worked on school mural right outside the art room. It was a great homage to Roy Lichtenstein. The mural had a woman that debated the meaning of art. One day I passed by it and found out some jerk wrote "Tom the Tomato" in permanent marker on her teeth. I was furious and just plain confused. I later found out it's a charater from Veggie Tales. it just plain confuses me why people defile property.

    I know how you feel. For weeks I became paranoid and guarded that wall. But that's the harsh reality about public art or murals. The condition is out of your hands. I know public art commissioned by the state require that the artist give them guidlines how to maintain the art if it ever get damaged. So sadly it probably happens to a lot of public art.

    I love your graffiti art. Keep it up. Who knows to solve all this maybe someday your graffiti can grace the hall of a museum. If people become crazy, they have to go through security guards :p

  27. Nice drawing but, maybe next time you should think of including other races in your murals if you don't want to be percieved as only drawing white society. Besides it would be nice to see.

    Also once its on the wall in a public space, people are going to do stuff to it, interect and react.

  28. Yes, yes, I know that I should've thought about including other races on this mural. Yes, I know it would be nice to see. But you're missing the point. I painted these characters from vintage illustrations with the intent to reflect on what type of furniture was being sold inside the store. Get it? I've already gone over this in my post and my comments. Same thing about the being in public thing, too.

    Seems like I'm repeating myself.

  29. so anyway....
    more importantly...

    how was Chick-fil-A??

  30. Congrats on the BoingBoing link. Sorry it's for such a dumb action by youth.

    No one mentioned it, but I get a laugh thinking these kids were being smart standing on top of one another and leaked urine all over themselves.

    Youth do dumb things indeed. Gotta love some of those intelligent comments here too.

  31. Whoa...I just read this, Ward. So sorry to hear about what happened. It is all so wrong on so many levels.

    I bet, before anything else, those kids saw the characters' shit-eating grins...and just imagined them saying, "pee on me!", because their twisted, juvenile minds can't think of anything better to do with their afternoon.

    Still---they must have been REALLY bored, because I can't imaging trying to pee from someone's shoulders! Hopefully, they wet the guy propping them up.

  32. This whole situation makes for a fascinating look into public art issues and reverse racism. I specifically agree with the "anonymous" response from LA. You should publicize this event as an example of "juvenile fun or reverse racism?", because it really blurs the lines! Bring it to the news!

  33. How dare those boys piss on my favorite mural! I was hanging on your every word on this post. Unbelievable! Like a few other commenters have said, I agree with the "boys will be boys" scenairo. I know you feel weird about this situation, Art is an extention of ourselves, and having someone pee on my art would make me a little flustered too.

  34. o.k. though this thread ought to be winding down at this point i feel i must say the following-

    first, there is context to consider. as ward has tried to explain multiple times here, the mural is for a commercial establishment and its subject matter is in keeping with said establishment. it is not a racially motivated piece in any manner whatsoever.

    that being said as per this issue in general-

    every comment which innocently suggests that ward ought to have "included other races" in his mural is off base. completely. i realize that this might be an unpopular sentiment, but in my estimation the very notion that any representation of a group of humans, in public space, need to reflect a cross section of all cultures which might conceivably view said piece is politically correctness at its laziest.

    the multi-cultural make-up of a community, or a city or, a country is not sincerely celebrated and embraced by the de-facto inclusion of each of its inhabitants in every single publicly visible representation of people. that is a disingenuous "easy solution" to the real concerns, tensions, and issues of any multi-cultural area. and today most places are.

    this method of addressing the culture-clash is one used by advertisers hoping to appeal to the broadest possible demographic, and not one particularly useful for encouraging understanding in those actually pictured.

    the real beauty of "the melting-pot" is the experience of walking through and coming across a thousand different images, icons, and cultural touchstones which unabashedly celebrate a thousand different cultural experiences- side by side. the idea that every image ought to celebrate every culture misses the point completely. all the talk of "sensitivity" is misguided. a truly harmonious mixture of cultures is one in which each live together, side by side, without the need for compulsory homogenization aimed at "sensitivity." honest blending and mixing will happen naturally.

    i live in new york and one aspect of it's vibrancy is undoubtedly the wonderful blending of influences, where cultures and religions and races mix to create new forms. another aspect, however, are the neighborhoods which unabashedly celebrate their own cultures. what would new york be without china town, little italy, hell's kitchen, astroria, brighton beach, harlem, greenpoint, the upper west side, etc?

    a key component of sincere understanding is acceptance of the "other." and failing that, at very least, tolerance. the idea that every image ought to be created with the idea of "not offending anyone" undercuts this chance at sincere understanding by trying to cut off any tension at the pass as it were. people need to come to that understanding themselves, in their own time, for there to be any real growth or progress.

    anyhow, my point, i guess, is this: including everyone in every public image does not accomplish anything. the accomplishment is for someone to be faced with items and images depicting "the other" and to embrace, or accept, or tolerate, or at very least, not simply piss on it, metaphorically or otherwise.

  35. Sorry to hear about this Ward, it's a splendid mural that would brighten up any neighbourhood.

  36. I'm sure someone has already said something like this already, but I'm going to say it anyway...

    While I completely understand your theory about a mural representing the neighborhood it's in, I think it's important to realize that it is not your fault that they did this to the mural.

    Kids do stupid things. Beautiful things get defaced all the time. Without motive.