interviews the writting on the wall murals
The Vancouver Sun
Local Publication
Vancouver — Published on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009

City criticized for ordering removal of anti-Olympic mural

photo by colleen heslin
By Richard J. Dalton Jr.
Artists and a leading civil libertarian criticized the city Friday for forcing the removal of an anti-Olympic mural outside a Downtown Eastside studio, claiming the city is censoring free expression.

The mural depicts the Olympic rings, with just one ring showing a smiley face and four sporting unhappy faces.

The mural's creator, the studio owner and the BC Civil Liberties Association said Friday the city is censoring anti-Olympic art.

City officials "were saying that it was graffiti but not saying that it was because of the Olympics," said Colleen Heslin, who owns the Crying Room studio at 157 E. Cordova St., where the art was first displayed on an outside wall in September.

"But they had never previously asked me to take anything down," she said.

Heslin said she's had more than 30 murals in the front of her studio since 2003, rotating them about every two and a half months.

Heslin's landlord received a warning from the city that the mural was considered graffiti and he then asked Heslin to remove it last month.

Peter Wong, the landlord, said he didn't fight the warning because he doesn't understand the anti-graffiti law.

"I don't think that's graffiti," he said. "But they think it's graffiti, so I cannot argue with them."

Heslin said she removed it because it was time to rotate another mural into the spot.

Penny Ballem, city manager, said buildings around the intersection of Main and Cordova, including the building in which the studio is located, are frequent targets of graffiti artists.

Ballem said the drawing appeared on a piece of wood placed on the outside of the window, so an inspector probably thought it was graffiti.

The city spoke to the owner, who never indicated the piece was artwork, she said. The city then followed up with a letter on Oct. 22 demanding its removal.

The issue arose just a week after city councillors reassured civil-liberties groups at a council meeting that the city would not use its bylaws to crack down on free expression that criticizes the Games.

David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said the city is breaking that promise.

"This is an excellent example of our worst fears," he said.

On Friday, Robert Holmes, president of the civil-liberties group, sent a letter to Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver city council, criticizing the city for failing to protect free expression.

"The majority of this Council, the Mayor and the police chief have been quoted in the press as saying that you have no intention of using the law enforcement resources of the City to limit freedom of expression," he wrote.

"We urge you to review and reform your processes to ensure that this does not happen again, although we are losing confidence in your political will to ensure that all voices are heard during the Olympic period, despite your repeated public assertions to the contrary."

Councillors Geoff Meggs and Suzanne Anton both expressed disappointment and said the removal was an unfortunate incident. They said council intends to protect free expression, even if art expresses negative views of the Olympics.

Anton said enforcing the bylaws is complex and the art probably violated the bylaws.

But she said it was "heavy-handed" to crack down on public art at a studio.

And, she added, "It just doesn't look good for the city that [the mural is] the first piece that's taken down."

The artist, Jesse Corcoran, a community-care worker with a shelter for people who have mental-health issues and substance-use issues, said the mural illustrates that just a few people will benefit from the Olympics, while many will suffer. He said the city is pushing the homeless out of Oppenheimer Park so it will look good for the Olympics. "The priorities are in the wrong place and that mural kind of exposes the idea," he said.

Demanding the removal of the mural "is a convenient way to silence this social criticism," Corcoran said. "There needs to be freedom to critique the Olympics."

Though city officials deemed the mural graffiti, the city has a program to encourage people to replace graffiti with murals. "A mural can act as a deterrent to future graffiti, enhance the aesthetics of the building and community as well as provide a medium for artists to display their work," the City of Vancouver website notes.

The city says it will even "provide the paint supplies you need to help bring a mural to life your neighbourhood."

Coun. Meggs said city staff told him the mural could be posted legitimately in a nearby area designated for murals.

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