Manchester Street mural causes concern, sparks discussion about public art

The new mural has stirred controversy. "We always expected we would eventually have a mural that would create some push-back," said PRHBTN's Jessica Winters.
The new mural has stirred controversy. "We always expected we would eventually have a mural that would create some push-back," said PRHBTN's Jessica Winters. Lexington Herald-Leader

Work is winding down on Lexington's largest mural, being painted on the side of the Pepper Distillery Warehouse by French muralist MTO as part of the annual PRHBTN street art festival.

PRHBTN is the same group that commissioned the popular mural of President Abraham Lincoln on the back of the Kentucky Theatre, which was painted last fall by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra. But the MTO mural has not received as warm an embrace.

The mural depicts a street artist behind bars with red police tape running across it saying, "Caution: Do Not Feed." The artist's hands are signing the letters MTO, which has been part of the artist's signature on other works around the world. But concerns have been raised that the gestures are gang symbols and that the image might attract gang activity.

Cynthia Kelly of Kelly Nursery, which is next door to the mural, said that when she approached the building owner and PRHBTN about concerns she had about the mural and its subject matter, she was told her opinions were subjective.

"To say that it's overbearing in the space is an understatement," Kelly said. "There's no escape for us."

PRHBTN co-founder Jessica Winters acknowledged that the mural faces the nursery and said, "I'm sorry they don't like it. But it was presented to the business owners in the Distillery District, and they were the only ones who objected."

The symbols on the mural are simply part of the art of MTO, whose identity was not officially revealed until now, Winters said. The concerns are a "manufactured controversy" because the Kellys don't like the image facing their business, she added. She pointed to a police statement about the accusation of gang symbols in the mural.

"We've spoken to the artist, property owner and program director and made them aware of community concerns," Lexington police Commander Ken Armstrong wrote in the report. "The artist provided us with a draft of the final project and upon review we do not think that it is gang related. However, it is apparent that citizens and even gang members could perceive it to be gang related (which we pointed out to all three parties)."

The note concluded, "At this time there appears to be no illegal activity related to the matter and there is no action the Division of Police can/should take."

The Pepper Distillery Warehouse is privately owned on private property, and the owners were presented with the plans for the mural before work began, Winters said.

Regardless, Kelly said, the public can see it.

"I see this as very clearly public space, anyone who goes up that corridor is going to see that mural."

Public art in a community sends a messages to visitors as well, she said.

"Yesterday we had a truck driver from Georgia," Kelly said. "We asked him to look at the mural and he said that looks like a gang sign. He's going to leave Lexington and go up to Ohio and that's the impression that he has of Lexington. That is something we all have to consider. The community is larger than just the neighborhood."

MTO's mural was one of four commissioned for this year's PRHBTN festival, and initially it appeared the mural would go more in the direction of the Lincoln mural. A post on the PRHBTN Facebook page asked for suggestions of local icons to be in the image. Muhammad Ali received a lot of votes.

"We were excited he would do a Kentucky notable, and were a little surprised when we saw the proposed design," Winters acknowledged. However, the mural image is in line with a character MTO has been creating in other murals. In particular, he was inspired by columns running down the building that he made to look like jail bars, she said.

The artists PRHBTN brings in come for free, and part of the condition is that they have free rein to paint what they want, she said.

"We always expected we would eventually have a mural that would create some push-back," Winters said.

The controversy has reached as far as the Urban County Council and the race for the 2nd District seat. Candidate Michael Stuart has posted videos seeking comment on the mural, which is located in that district.

Council member Bill Farmer brought up the mural during Tuesday's council work session and said he had received several phone calls from residents who were concerned about what the final product will look like. In a phone interview, Farmer said perhaps it was time the public had a broader discussion about what it believes is public art.

"I think we all like public art," Farmer said. "But not everybody see things the same way. I think we need to start a discussion about public art in Lexington and what we want to see."

Kelly noted that in some cities, such as Portland, Ore., plans for public art have to be approved by a government board.

Winters said that she welcomes conversations about public art, agrees that art in publicly owned spaces should go through public approval, and points out that the Lincoln mural had to go through city approval because it is on the city-owned Kentucky Theatre.

"But PRHBTN is a privately held LLC," said Winters, who co-owns the organization with her husband, John Winters. "We pick the artists, we approve the work with the property owners.

"The fact is, no mural we commission will be liked by everyone. There are people who don't like the Lincoln mural."