What was supposed to be the swan song of a long-running and much-loved public art project in the Funk Zone instead ended on a sour note when a building manager and police stopped dozens of artists from participating in the farewell event Friday afternoon.
For the last five years, members of a group called AMASS — Artists Making a Street Scene — have painted murals on the boarded windows of the big building that sits vacant on the corner of Mason and Helena streets. The old industrial structure, scheduled for demolition this week, is owned by Los Angeles development company Next Century Associates, which recently resumed work on the delayed La Entrada project.
The idea behind the murals, explained AMASS leader Laura Inks Bodine, was to add a splash of color and expression to an otherwise blighted corner of the waterfront district. The paintings not only covered and deterred graffiti, she went on, but also provided quasi-sanctioned canvases for Santa Barbara’s street artists to strut their stuff. Inks Bodine said she received formal permission for the “renegade experiment” from the property’s former owner back in 2009 but had not secured any kind of agreement with Next Century Associates when the L.A. firm took control of the building in 2011.
Nevertheless, Inks Bodine explained, Next Century was aware of the mural painting and hadn’t ever tried to end it, even as new pieces were created every four months on the wall along Mason Street. (The murals were restricted to that side of the building and the one that faces Helena Street.) “They could have told us to stop anytime,” Inks Bodine said. “It was a given that it could stop at anytime. But in my mind, they liked having it. They got to enjoy the coolest part of the Funk Zone.” Over the years, more than 150 artists left their marks, and their creations were blasted far and wide via all forms of social media. (Read more about AMASS history and impact here.)
Ahead of Friday’s final hurrah, Inks Bodine invited the full roster of past contributors and had planned to create murals not just in the window spaces but across the outside walls themselves. “This was our last chance to make a statement,” Inks Bodine said. They were scheduled to start painting at 4 p.m. and finish by Sunday night, but when the artists arrived with equipment in tow, they were greeted by the property manager and four city police officers.
The property manager, Eloise Hardy, initially told Inks Bodine the murals needed to be kept to the window spaces, but after a phone conversation with an unknown contact, Hardy then said no painting could take place at all. Inks Bodine said Hardy didn’t provide a reason why she was killing the event and that negotiations between the two quickly broke down. Hardy said Monday that she couldn’t speak on the matter and referred all questions to an unnamed La Entrada project leader, who is out of town and unavailable until Thursday. Calls to Next Century Associates were not returned.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood said Hardy had called the station at 3:51 p.m. on Friday with concern that possible vandalism was taking place at the building. When officers arrived they spoke to Hardy and Inks Bodine and soon cleared the call as a “public assist,” Harwood said, stating the property owners had expressed worry that if the building was painted they would be compelled to repaint it because of city graffiti laws. “The police just said: ‘You had permission, now you don’t have permission,’” Inks Bodine explained.
Inks Bodine, who recently moved to Ecuador but had flown back to Santa Barbara for a week for her daughter’s graduation and the AMASS send-off, said the confrontation ended with a twist of irony: After arguing for years that the project cut down on graffiti, Inks Bodine inadvertently left her own “tag” on the building when she saved a mural space by spray-painting her name on a section of window, but was then not allowed by police to remove it. “I said to the officer: ‘Can I buff it out? I don’t want to be the one to tag it,” Inks Bodine lamented. “He just said: ‘Walk away.’”
Winding up at nearby Reds for a drink, the group was left confused and demoralized, said Inks Bodine. “I just wanted to leave one last beautiful gift to Santa Barbara,” she said. A call was put out to AMASS to keep clear of the building and not stir any trouble, and so far further controversy has been avoided. “I’m all about permission and not doing anything illegally,” she said. “We had a great run, and we’re grateful they gave us permission for that long.”