Wide open gall: A vandalized mural inspires debates about artistic etiquette and gentrification in Oak Park
Graffiti targeting Wide Open Walls installation begs question: Can street art be defaced by other street art?
When Micah Baginski returned to his Oak Park real estate office after Labor Day weekend, a brazen message spray-painted on his business’ façade greeted him: “Gentrify 101: Make it hip!” the white-lettered graffiti read. Underneath that, the tagger left a closing message: “fuck that.”
Baginski couldn’t help but laugh at the latest person accusing him of gentrifying the community. He’s operated Grounded Real Estate in Oak Park since 2002, and he’s worked in the neighborhood for more than 25 years. “Honestly, it’s kind of comical at this point,” he said.
The graffiti remains contentious, however, because it was scrawled over another artist’s work, which many consider a violation of an unspoken code.
The act also threw fuel on an already impassioned discussion about racial equity and economic justice in Oak Park as blossoming development overtakes the once-impoverished neighborhood.
Tanya Faison, founder of Black Lives Matter’s local chapter and an Oak Park native, for instance, called the graffiti “a great reminder to the neighborhood that people are still being affected by gentrification, that people are still being displaced.”
Local artist Waylon Horner finished the mural on Grounded’s Broadway and 34th Street headquarters in late August. The piece was commissioned as part of Wide Open Walls, a high-profile, citywide mural project where businesses and donors commissioned dozens of artists to paint new pieces on blank buildings.
“It’s not a big deal. We’re just going to fix it and move on with our lives,” Horner said of the graffiti, adding that he anticipated that someone might deface the work, which he spent 100 hours painting. “I knew that there was going to be some of that talk. I didn’t realize that it would be on my mural.”
Horner, who described himself as an artist and not an activist, said he sympathizes with anger over displacement. Grounded said it will pay him to repair the mural. “The lesson learned is more like, ’There are assholes out there,’” Horner said. “There’s no substantial message there. It’s just defacing.”
But south Oak Park resident and Sacramento City College arts professor Gioia Fonda contended that the graffiti is “a lot more complex than, ’Oh, somebody’s art got fucked up,’” she said.
“The tag was heartfelt and well-placed, given the intention of the person who put it there,” she said. “The person behind it was feeling unheard, and they felt that they didn’t have a better platform to express themselves, other than put it on a wall.”
The mural was painted just north of the central-city grid on Broadway, blocks recently branded as “The Triangle.” It’s a community transformed in recent years.
Home and rental prices continue to rise. Baginski, whose business leases property in the area, estimated several new eateries and businesses arrived to the block in recent years. “It’s a really hard place to open a business,” he said.
Fonda described Wide Open Walls as a great program that helps artists, but worried the graffiti is “evidence that there might be a reason to slow down and consider the consequences of plopping something into a neighborhood.” She said “parachuting” art into neighborhoods doesn’t always resonate with locals (the initial response to the Watts Towers in South Central Los Angeles being an example). “The artists get caught in the middle,” she said.
Wide Open Walls founder David Sobon said his project held conversations with community groups such as arts and social-justice nonprofit Sol Collective. “We did thoughtful and mindful outreach in the community,” he said.
Sobon, who called Wide Open Walls “the most popular event in the history of Sacramento,” said the murals were gifts to the city. “You were looking at an ugly brick wall,” he said, “and instead of looking at graffiti or gang tags, now you’re looking at art.”
Sobon, a local art auctioneer, said he hopes the tagger goes to jail for the graffiti. But Baginski says he understands why folks are angry. “Rents are the highest they’ve ever been in Sacramento, and housing is in short supply,” he said.
He’d like to see a community forum to discuss how Oak Park is changing so that people can better understand different perspectives. For example, Baginski pointed out that most people likely don’t realize new businesses have hired several locals, including Sacramento High School students. “We’re trying to make Oak Park a nicer place to be. And that’s not a bad thing,” he said.
But he’s also observed an elevated sense of wokeness in Sacramento. “Most of this is coming from people who moved to Sacramento from Berkeley in the past years and think they’re god’s gift to social justice,” he said.
Faison, who says she was recently priced out of Oak Park, thinks that it’s past the point of discussion. “Action needs to happen, and it needs to happen quickly,” she said.
In the meantime, Horner said, he’ll soon be in Oak Park repairing his mural. “It’s all good. I love to be out there painting,” he said.
In an earlier version of this story, we reported that, according to Sobon, Sol Collective helped decide what murals would go in what neighborhood. SN&R stands by this reporting. However, both Sobon and Sol Collective now say the nonprofit was not involved in such decisions. The story has been updated.