Though the City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday that the “Gator Boy” mural on the side of Cajun Kitchen’s Chapala Street restaurant needs to come down because it was put up without the necessary permits and because it doesn’t fit with the downtown corridor’s historic aesthetic, councilmembers remained open to further discussion about how such public art is vetted and approved in El Pueblo Viejo (EPV). Siding with a previous Historic Landmarks Commission ruling, the council allowed “Gator Boy” to be treated as a temporary exhibit and remain until next August. The commissioners, in their ruling, complimented the mural as tasteful and well executed, but they said it simply didn’t conform to EPV guidelines.
Cajun Kitchen co-owner Juan Jimenez — accompanied by artist Curt Crawshaw at this week’s council meeting — admitted he was naïve for not obtaining permission for the mural in the first place, but he contended the approval process for publicly viewable art on private property is gray at best. Crawshaw chided City Hall for adopting a view of public art that he called “resoundingly close-minded” and that the “stodgy” and “uptight” practices of city decision-makers hinder a creatively minded community. Crawshaw also noted that the complaint filed against “Gator Boy” that triggered the current enforcement action came from the City Arts Advisory Committee. “This is bureaucracy at its worst” and an example of the government creating a problem that never would have existed, he complained.
The meeting’s only public speaker — Gerardo Ayala, chair of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission — said he couldn’t help but side with Historic Landmarks because “Gator Boy” simply didn’t fit its rules. But Ayala said those rules and the commission’s reach deserve some close scrutiny, asking how Paseo Nuevo’s fountain a block away — what he called a “Palladian phallus topped by a tchotchke” — could be green-lighted. Councilmember Dale Francisco, as the council’s liason to Historic Landmarks, said while he thought the EPV guidelines were rather straightforward, he would be open to talks about updating them.