Yesterday, the day that Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, I received a note from the Fords. They’re the family who'd asked Paul Trujillo, a sixteen-year-old urban artist, to paint a piece on the back of their garage at 1539 Monroe Street that would be similar to the 26-square foot painting Paul had created on the alley fence behind his grandparents' house at 303 Galapago Street.
Both pieces feature giant portraits of Obama, along with the word "Vote." It was the inclusion of that word that got Paul’s grandparents, the Vigils, in trouble with the city, after the planning department’s Neighborhood Inspections Division decided that it turned a piece of art on private property into an election sign – and election signs are limited by city ordinance to no more than eight-square feet. On October 16, the city sent the Vigils a cease-and-desist order, giving them thirty days to come into compliance – which would mean erasing their grandson's work.
Reading about the Vigils' dilemma in "Why the City Wants to Wipe Out Barack Obama," my October 2 column, inspired the Fords to commission their own stunning piece, as reported in the October 29 follow "The City Wants to Wipe Him Out, But Paul Trujillo is a Very Important Artist." But although it includes the same elements that were a problem for the city on Galapago -- size and wording -- the Fords have not heard a word from Denver officials.
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"This just goes to show that when you live on the west side and paint your fence, you get fined and threatened -- but when you live on the east side you’ll probably be overlooked,” they wrote in their note. “It’s unfortunate and sad that race and affluence still determine what laws the city chooses to enforce and when.”
The "when" is particularly important here -- because now that the election is over, there's simply no reason for the city to persist in its misguided attempt to label Paul's work an election sign. Not only do First Amendment experts agree that the entire original mural qualifies as art, but with voting for Obama now a historic act, it also becomes an important cultural artifact. A piece of art, of our history, that should be saved.
Yes, we can. – Patricia Calhoun