If a Tree Mural Falls: An Analysis on the Revamp of the SoHud Mural
A Humble History
You’ll forgive SoHud if it seems a little disoriented. It’s just not used to all of this attention. The modest neighborhood south of Hudson and north of Ohio State has spent the last 50 years in quiet anonymity; its particularly charmless version of charm being largely overshadowed by more prosperous enclaves to the north (Glen Echo and Clintonville) and more newsworthy neighbors to the south (the OSU campus and its environs).
For most people, SoHud was little more than the place they sped through on their way somewhere else; an inconvenient right turn on Summit for drivers from nicer neighborhoods heading south to OSU, the Short North, or downtown. No one paid attention to SoHud, and that was fine. There existed a kind of civic detente. SoHud did its thing (which was often nothing), and the people driving through drove on.
It was a quieter time to be sure. Movie theaters could be abandoned, stores could close, businesses could clear out and have their vacated storefronts turned into half-assed apartments. No one made a peep. The neighborhood was of so little consequence that for years it didn’t even have a name. When people did start talking about names a decade or so ago, a cadre of first-generation ironists nearly succeeded in re-branding the whole area Washington Beach, a moniker that’s as cynical as it is absurd. All this could happen and, well, crickets.
A Neighborhood Evolves
Then things started changing. Trailblazing businesses like Rumba Cafe, Wild Goose Creative, and Capital City Scooters moved in and proved that there was enough of something left in the neighborhood to make rent and keep the doors open. Other businesses followed, and before you knew it, people started caring about things. They cared about homeless people sleeping in the movie theater’s alcove. They cared about attracting more businesses. They cared about speed limits, crosswalks, and bicycles. They cared about graffiti, and more specifically, how to stop it.
Enter the SoHud Community Mural Project. The project, undertaken in 2011 and led by Wild Goose Creative, promised to create a “welcoming gateway into Columbus.” This welcoming gateway was to take the form of an expansive mural on the north-facing wall at Hudson and Summit. Of course it was also hoped that this mural would put an end to the rampant and largely forgettable graffiti that the wall attracted (The theory being that once a wall has been painted, graffiti artists would be bound by the graffiti writer’s code to respect the work and not bomb it into oblivion).
Artists presented proposals for the mural. The community offered feedback in public forums and ultimately the design of architect Tim Lai was accepted. The tree mural, a stylized selection of brightly colored trees meant to evoke the wooded Glen Echo ravine to the north, was born. Far from being the work of a single artist though, the tree mural was a community initiative in every possible way, from months of planning to its selection to the community groups and neighbors who helped fund and paint it.
Most agreed that the project was a success. People liked the mural. They thought it was nice and would tell you as much if you asked. Further, the mural brought the community together, giving businesses and residents both a sense of pride in place. This was no small feat for a neighborhood that, at the time, was not really known for coming together. People and businesses who assisted on the project got to sign their names. Little kids helped.
The mural did its other jobs too. It offered a welcoming face to the neighborhood and kept the graffiti at bay (It turns out that most graffiti artists did indeed honor the aforementioned code). Still, this was SoHud, and the mural was, when all was said and done, simply silhouettes of variegated trees painted in tasteful colors adjacent to a derelict movie theater. Did anyone really care about the mural or what might happen to it?
The answer turned out to be a resounding, internet-sized yes.
Pitchforks at the Ready
Things happened pretty quickly. On Wednesday, May 31, Baba’s Restaurant announced plans to “revamp the Hudson wall.” On Thursday, June 1, the tree mural was gone. By nightfall Sunday, June 4, the new mural was nearly complete. And if you think that was fast, know that the internet was even faster.
Online backlash began almost immediately. People involved in the original mural chimed in. Neighbors chimed in. People who were both chimed in. People who were neither chimed in. Opinions, it turns out, are like Facebook accounts. Everybody has one.
Criticism generally focused on three main concerns. The first was that Baba’s didn’t rightly honor or appreciate the history of the mural or its significance in the community. The second was that this all happened way too fast. Many felt Baba’s should have given more notice, affording the community a chance to reflect on the proposed changes, celebrate the mural they’d soon lose, and yes, grieve its loss. The third concern was that Baba’s violated the trust of the community by inviting the proprietor of the local graffiti supply shop to plan and execute the new mural in what would turn out to be…wait for it…graffiti style.
Bear with me. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
Justin Withrow is many things; an entrepreneur, an artist, an evangelist, a hustler. Hustler might sound sketchy, but it’s not meant that way. The dude just flat hustles. Depending on the time or season, you might find him promoting graffiti artists for the 2X2 Hip-Hop Festival, running monthly painting jams, working with school kids on outdoor murals or minding his recently opened graffiti supply store, The Lookout Shop. Withrow lives graffiti and is convinced like no one else that it can make our city better.
Given Withrow’s connections, passion, and proximity to Baba’s (Lookout Supply is just a couple blocks from Baba’s restaurant), it’s no surprise he was tapped to spearhead the new Hudson Street mural. It probably didn’t hurt that his well-regarded Alice in Wonderland mural had previously graced the wall of the Leen O’ Caffe just across the street.
So, Withrow got the job, and spearhead he did. The new Hudson mural went up with the kind of practiced efficiency you would pray for in a contractor. Of course it helped that Withrow had a stable of seasoned veterans working on the project. Each of the artists took responsibility for a specific area and worked in their own style. The palette was limited, and agreed on in advance. This helped maintain at least some continuity across the entire piece. The result is half a block of color-coordinated angles, vortices, and lines overlapping to abstraction and buzzing with frenetic energy.
Which is to say it looks like graffiti.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how the people who came together to paint trees on this very wall with the hope of eradicating this very thing might be a little bit disappointed in the result. Pissed even.
Graffiti is a form of expression, but it’s often executed illegally. It carries with it baggage that’s usually negative and mostly related to things like vandalism, gangs, crime, and (let’s face it) race. Graffiti exists on its own terms. It’s a means of expression that developed organically; it’s style and evolution being guided by its practitioners. This independence that graffiti enjoys ensures it a kind of renegade status. Graffiti gets to do what it wants. It doesn’t answer to society or play by society’s rules.
Except it sort of does. The renegade narrative obscures a lot about what graffiti aspires to, about what it can be and about how we might view it. The new Hudson mural is a case in point. The people behind this mural have talent. Many have been doing this for years. They’ve put in long hours honing and refining their craft. They’ve made sacrifices for their work. They’re passionate and enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They talk about developing their style, pushing themselves, growing. They are artists. They may be working in a style that’s not universally accepted, but they’re artists nonetheless.
Monster Steve has a resume that’s as impressive as any MFA grad. In addition to creating a number of high profile murals around Ohio and adjoining states Steve has taught mural making to high school and college students. His smaller works have been exhibited at Lindsay Gallery. Steve’s purple monster stomps gleefully through the center of the new Hudson mural.
Mandi Caskey became disillusioned at CCAD and dropped out after two years. She fell hard for the freedom street art afforded and eventually found herself commissioned to create a mural for the observation deck of the Rhodes State Office Tower. Caskey and her work have been profiled in the Columbus Alive, 614 Columbus and DowntownColumbus.com. Her hot pink skull graces the west end of the new mural.
Derik Yelloweyes has been doing graffiti for over 15 years. A veteran of the scene, he served time for his work. As someone who’s plied his trade both legally and illegally, he appreciates the opportunities that “legal walls” offer artists. Yelloweyes insists that “we all want the same thing, to enjoy and elevate public spaces.” His piece, a complex set of letters abstracted to the breaking point, resides to the left of Caskey’s skull.
And that’s just a few of the artists. They all have stories, and those stories are told in part through this mural.
Public Space Public Debate
Baba’s chose art over advertising. It was a noble choice, but a risky one too. The fact is we’ve ceded so much of our public space to paid advertising that the Baba’s logo in fifteen foot letters (or a giant banner featuring the iPhone 7) would have caused less controversy than this new mural. It certainly would have been less surprising. Really, who could blame a business for wanting to raise their profile or cash in? Advertising’s ubiquity self-fulfills. The more its foisted on us, the less likely we are to object to it. Further, our willingness to accept paid advertising in public spaces (often without community comment or consent) has left us unprepared to debate alternatives in any meaningful way.
So we build strawmen and knock them down instead. We make assumptions and wield them in place of facts. We assign the worst motives to others and assume the best about ourselves. We create narratives based on personal biases and hold on to them to the bitter end. Who knows? Maybe that’s what the internet’s for after all.
Or, maybe the internet’s for something else. Maybe it’s for broadening our horizons, reaching out and making connections. Maybe it’s for building bridges. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” That sentiment could apply here as well, and the internet makes it easier than ever to do just that.
Have a question about Baba’s and why they did what they did? Message them on Facebook. Want to learn more about the graffiti scene? Find Justin Withrow online. He’s certainly no stranger to the internet. Interested in learning more about the artists? Google them. Find them on Twitter. Check out their Instagram profiles. Constructive, civil conversations are just a click away. Sure, it takes a little more time than immediately posting your hottest of takes or sickest of burns, but the benefits are worth it.
SoHud isn’t the afterthought it once was. People are more willing than ever to commit time, talent and treasure to its success. But more stakeholders means more opinions and more occasions to disagree. People care though. They’re passionate, and that’s not a bad thing. In Baba’s original announcement they declared, “as the neighborhood changes, so must the art.” It turns out they were right. The neighborhood is changing. So is the art. It will likely change again. Here’s hoping the next round of change will bring people together and make the neighborhood’s bonds stronger.