New SoHud mural triggers debate

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Perhaps it’s time to put the story of the Baba’s/SoHud mural to bed. The furor played out over the past week, primarily on social media — a messy, muddled, stressful (for some), comical (for others) and infuriating early summer distraction in the Capital City.

If you were paying attention (or even, in many cases, if you weren’t), you saw the threads: people angry about the removal of the previous mural on the side of the Summit Street business; people not at all impressed with the owners’ and artists’ choice of design for the new mural; people having a bit of fun at the expense of those who didn’t care for the graffiti-style artwork; people confused about the whole hubbub.

Baba’s opened about seven months ago, the restaurant/bakery/coffee shop at the corner of Summit and Hudson streets joining a growing list of storefronts in the neighborhood. Co-owner Caroline Kraus said she had been discussing the prospect of replacing the mural for months with shop customers.

“We had been talking very openly … about the idea. It was never an under-the-table discussion,” Kraus said. “To us, it had been a three-month conversation. The way the timing happened, sometimes you need to jump on an opportunity when it comes along.”

That opportunity arrived courtesy of the Lookout Supply Shop, an art-supply store on Indianola Avenue just north of Hudson Street. The owner, Justin Withrow, offered to coordinate a group of local street artists to create a new mural on the side of the building. An announcement was made on social media on May 31 and prep work began that day, with painting beginning the next weekend.

“I wasn’t aware it was happening. I saw it in person as I was driving my kids to school. Both of the kids and I were all surprised,” said Elizabeth Dekker, who spearheaded the community effort to install the “Tree Mural” on the site in 2011.

Dekker described the yearlong process that went into the creation of the “Tree Mural.” The building was unoccupied at the time, so Dekker, along with a handful of neighbors, went to community meetings in SoHud, Glen Echo and the University District with an idea to improve the look of the wall, which was derelict and often covered in graffiti.

Following a fundraising campaign, a call for artists was put out, with the proposals presented at a community meeting held at Wild Goose Creative. Once the design was selected via community vote, two local artists were chosen to head up a team of residents to paint the mural. On Aug. 20, 2011, a community painting party was held.

“The people that had genuine emotional responses [to the loss of the mural], I am totally empathetic,” Kraus said, adding that she certainly didn’t set out, as a new business owner, to anger potential customers.

Regardless, the negativity on social media “got real big real fast,” Kraus said, at times venturing into absurdist terrain. (One online commenter described the new mural as “an assault, plain and simple.”)

Many expressed dissatisfaction with the graffiti style employed by the team of artists, which included seasoned street artists Derik Yelloweyes, Monster Steve and Mandi Caskey, among others. Some were also concerned it would lead to a rash of tagging incidents the likes of which necessitated the creation of the original mural.

The entire affair has served as a reminder that art has the ability to open up conversations, and public art has the ability to do so in a very public way.

Withrow, for one, welcomes these conversations.

“I just wish all those people would have come down while we were painting,” he said. “If you don’t like the art, work with the artists.”

Alternately, the city’s budding army of art critics can hold off until early fall, since Kraus envisions the wall existing as a rotating canvas, with new artists painting a fresh mural as often as every three or four months.

“The whole [idea] is to keep bringing new art,” Kraus said. “There are so many different types of people in this neighborhood. I want to celebrate that diversity.”