“Gator Boy” may be forced to ride into that good night after a recent complaint to City Hall sparked an official review of the mural on the north side of Chapala Street’s Cajun Kitchen Café. Unless café co-owner Juan Jimenez can convince city officials that the bayou-and-breakfast-inspired imagery should remain a permanent fixture of Santa Barbara’s highly regulated, historic downtown corridor, the popular piece of public art will come down next August.
Jimenez — who, along with his brother, is in the process of taking over the 30-year-old restaurant chain from their dad — commissioned artist Curt Crawshaw to create the mural last December as part of a larger effort to spruce up and re-brand the business. Jimenez said he repainted the building, added new signs, and switched coffees. He got customer blowback about the new brew but received overwhelmingly positive responses about “Gator Boy.”
That was until this summer when the city sent him a letter explaining the mural went up without the proper approvals and that Jimenez would either need to apply for a permit — which was unlikely to be granted — or paint over it. Shortly thereafter, Jimenez launched a public campaign to keep the mural, offering free coffee and T-shirts to customers who Instagramed a photo of themselves with “Gator Boy.” The #savegatorboy hashtag now has 214 posts, and Jimenez recently ran out of T-shirts.
On August 13, Jimenez and Crawshaw took their case to the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC). While the commissioners unanimously agreed that “Gator Boy” is a fine piece of art created by a talented muralist, they knocked the pair — both of whom grew up in Santa Barbara — for completing the work without permission in El Pueblo Viejo Landmark District and its strict adherence to Spanish colonial architecture and design. “If you’ve lived here all your lives, you should know we regulate the downtown and talk about everything,” said Commissioner William Lavoie. “Bad boys.”
The HLC toyed with giving approval, but commissioners worried the decision would set a precedent for other businesses to erect their own, less-appealing murals and then point to Cajun Kitchen when applying for after-the-fact permits. “We have to guard against this kind of thing proliferating across city,” said Commissioner Michael Drury. Commissioner Judy Orias agreed that the art itself wasn’t the problem; it’s the location. “I have to ask myself, is this something I’d want in front of De la Guerra Plaza?” she said. “It’s a charming, nice piece of art, but I wish it was up at Five Points or someplace else.”
The only permanent mural in El Pueblo Viejo lives on the side of Paradise Café, HLC members noted, and the piece on the back of the Indigo Hotel was permitted as a temporary exhibit with a one-year lifespan scheduled to expire in December. Other commissioners noted that “Gator Boy” faces a building previously used by the Hollister family as an office space and that any structures around the office need to be managed with care and sensitivity. Historical activist Kellam de Forest, speaking during the meeting’s public-comment period, wondered, “Is the crocodile Spanish enough to pass muster?” Jimenez offered half-seriously: “We could add a sombrero.”
In their comments to the HLC, Jimenez and Crawshaw said they have great respect for the city and never meant to upset its leadership with “Gator Boy.” They also noted that the mural is tucked into Cajun Kitchen’s parking lot and not highly visible from the street. “It was intended to be lighthearted and uplifting,” Crawshaw said, “something that would stick out enough to get some attention and be new and interesting, but also fit into the surroundings enough to be embraced and enjoyed, which it has been.”
The HLC ultimately ruled that “Gator Boy” could stay up until August, at which point it will have to be removed. Commissioners advised Jimenez and Crawshaw that they could appeal the temporary permit to the City Council, which could hypothetically grant permanence, but that such a move by the council would “open a whole can of worms.” The hearing is scheduled for October 14.
Jimenez admitted this week that he was naïve for not getting the right permits in the first place, but he took issue with how the HLC hearing and the city’s overall oversight process has played out. “We felt treated like we were just kids who tagged a wall,” he said, stressing that he wishes city decision makers would be better facilitators for public art, not roadblocks. “We understand that people don’t want Santa Barbara to look like L.A.,” he went on. “But it’s gotten to the point where Santa Barbara is looking way too plain rather than beautiful and historic. And too plain can be a negative.”