By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU STAFF WRITER
A debate has erupted in the Little Tokyo area, as well as in the art community, over censorship versus sensitivity for veterans after an antiwar mural was painted and then hastily removed on a wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art last week.
The painting, by the Italian artist known as Blu, covered the wide, north-facing wall of the Geffen Contemporary building and depicted rows of wooden coffins that were draped with dollar bills, in the fashion that American flags would be used for the nation’s fallen soldiers.
The controversy over the mural’s content stemmed from its location: across Temple Street from a Veterans Affairs medical facility and next to – and in plain sight of – the Go For Broke Monument.
Within a day of the mural’s completion, MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch ordered the painting whitewashed, citing an insensitivity to the veterans who may be present at the hospital or the monument. He blamed a communication snafu for the confusion, stating that separate changes in his and Blu’s travel plans prevented the two from meeting ahead of time to discuss the mural and its imagery.
The mural, which was removed before the general public had a chance to see it, was commissioned as part of MOCA’s upcoming “Art in the Street” exhibition due in April. Blu, whose true identity has been a closely guarded secret, is known for his graffiti-style works that have been featured in the U.S., South America, Europe and the Middle East.
On his Web site, the artist questioned whether the removal amounted to censorship. He summarized, “MOCA asks me to paint a mural…I go to L.A. to paint the piece and I almost finish it…the MOCA director decides to erase the wall…on the next day the mural is erased by MOCA workers.”
MOCA’s media relations department released a statement last week, explaining the removal in terms of its location and the museum’s relationship with the Little Tokyo community.
“The Geffen Contemporary building is located on a special, historic site. Directly in front the north wall is the Go For Broke monument, which commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers, who served in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, and opposite the wall is the LA Veterans’ Affairs Hospital,” the statement read. “The museum’s director explained to Blu that in this context, where MOCA is a guest among this historic Japanese American community, the work was inappropriate. MOCA has invited Blu to return to Los Angeles to paint another mural.”
“Jeffrey Deitch has addressed this matter thoughtfully and professionally. MOCA has always been a good neighbor and respectful of our veterans. We appreciate that,” said Don Nose, president of the Go For Broke National Education Center headquartered in Torrance, in an email message to The Rafu Shimpo.
He said that his organization did not discuss the painting with MOCA, but some veterans had expressed their disapproval.
“Veterans who saw the mural as it was being painted on the wall and then watched as it was whitewashed over told us that they thought it was in poor taste,” Nose wrote. “To them, it seemed especially disrespectful to the VA across the street. One veteran said he couldn’t figure out why MOCA was painting a row of boxes on the side of its building. But no one at Go For Broke National Education Center complained to MOCA.”
A slew of messages on art Web sites and blogs have been harshly critical of MOCA and its director for removing the mural and not handling the situation in a more informed manner.
Chris Komai, director of public relations at the Japanese American National Museum, which neighbors the Geffen building to the south, said that MOCA is part of the Little Tokyo community, but communication with the organization has been less regular of late.
“It would have been nice, either way, if MOCA had tried to communicate with its neighbors of what was going on. Maybe they just wanted to bury this,” Komai said. “The truth is, we just don’t have good communication with MOCA since [director of MOCA administration]Randy Murphy left. He was the one person who would come to the [Little Tokyo Community Council] meetings. To some degree, it was much, much better then.”
Brian Lee, who runs the Hold Up Art gallery on Second Street in Little Tokyo, told the L.A. Times that anytime urban artists are commissioned, the expectation should be that they will deliver something with an edge.
“When you say, ‘Go at it, do what you’re gonna do,’ you have to expect graffiti artists are going to do that — try to get attention. That’s a big mentality for street artists — ‘Let’s see what we can get away with,’ ” Lee said.
Rafu English Editor Gwen Muranaka contributed to this story.