‘Fast Life’ mural censored, removed
The “Fast Life” mural is gone; whitewashed due to censorship over its perceived meaning. It was a skilled work of art that showed the
diversity of different cultures and was highly successful in engaging the public, attracting both acclaim and condemnation. For our community that is ‘embracing our differences,’ the censorship removed the opportunity for growth and the rejection of hatred and prejudices.
The French street artist MTO created the mural. It reflected his upbringing, his experience as a street artist and a graffiti-art series he created living in Berlin. His father’s love of black and white photography influenced his photorealism style. He participated in the debut of “Going Vertical” during the Sarasota Chalk Festival last November. For more than three weeks MTO worked long hours alongside hundreds of famous artists from around the world such as Kobra from Brazil, who painted the 1940s Main Street mural in Burns Square; Astro and Kanos who introduced Cellograff for the first time on U.S. soil; and ChorBoogie who brought his symphony of color from California to the Palm Avenue Parking Garage.
The mural was a portrait of a local model whose tattooed hands were positioned to make the letter ‘M’ for MTO. The location of the portrait on the 10th Street wall was at the approval of the business owner who was a sponsor of the festival.
When MTO was completing his masterpiece, a woman who lives and works in the neighborhood accused him of painting a gang sign with meanings wrapped around drugs, prostitution and a life that ends you in jail — or death. She became the mural’s most outspoken critic, holding emergency meetings and posting signs asking, “Is this mural good for our neighborhood?” — suggesting it threatened the social and moral order of the area.
The critic continued to rail against MTO and the mural even after hearing the artist’s statement that did not agree with their claim, a police department’s determination that it was not a gang sign, and a neighborhood survey concluding a 50/50 split of opinion on the mural.
The big issue was not whether the mural remained or that there was an outspoken critic. Rather, it was the lack of process that lead to the censorship decision that failed to include all interested parties. Allowing both sides the equal opportunity to communicate freely is an indisputable provision of a healthy democracy and a basis for sound decision-making.
The absence of open communication leaves the public without any transparency or a voice in the censorship. Censorship of what we see and hear and read constitutes an unacceptable dictatorship over our minds and is a dangerous opening to religious, political, artistic and intellectual repression.
Accepting censorship means that when we do not like something, we are left with only “acceptable” things that fail to provide any room for discussion or tolerate different worldly views or cultures. Art is not just something that refines and civilizes us, it also affords us the opportunity to look seriously at those things which challenge us.
In our pluralistic society, it would be impossible for all people to agree on the value of all ideas all the time. If we did, artistic, moral and intellectual growth would not exist. We would only have art that conformed to our own ideas, giving us a very narrow view of the world.
There has to be room for artistic diversity and freedoms that are both popular as well as controversial. Associating with the world that you disagree with affords the chance to challenge your thoughts and the opportunity to agree with things you once disagreed with.
In fact, young minds need ideas to grow. They need ideas free from the constraints of our collective and subjective disagreements or they will never be able to determine for themselves the ideas with which they really disagree. This was an opportunity to engage them in global views and images of the world that affect us and ask questions by giving them two-point conversations about difficult things and listen to what they tell us without imposing our views through censorship.
Moving forward, we need to support government leaders and citizens who show a healthy respect for process and the protection of everyone’s First Amendment rights. We need to embrace tolerance for challenging thought and images that help shape our character. We need to open doors to those who want to have conversations about public art that welcome other perspectives so we can maintain Sarasota’s standing as a top cultural art city interested in mature stewardship. Censorship belongs nowhere in those conversations.
If we can embrace situations such as “Fast Life” as a discussion point, instead of a call to action to destroy it, then we will deserve the respect we are building as a growing progressive cultural community and continue to attract world-class artists to participate in our events. Only then can we build a stronger community that is working to embrace our differences instead of fighting to win viewpoints.
The poet Maya Angelou once said, “We should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter the color.” When we really welcome diversity, we will have achieved the “rich tapestry” that binds us as a community.