Op-Ed: City must step up to restore Ohlone Park mural

By Stephen Most

A playwright and documentary screenwriter, Stephen Most is a Berkeley resident and the author of 'River of Renewal, Myth and History in the Klamath Basin.'

Ohlone mural by Bill Newton

A section of the Ohlone Park mural. Photo: Bill Newton

Twenty years ago, the late Dona Spring, a City Council member, asked me to find an American Indian artist to paint a mural on the BART vent building in Ohlone Park. The building was a graffiti-covered eyesore, crying out for public art. The city, having recently changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day, wanted to honor the Ohlones, who are native to this land.

In 1995, Jean LaMarr, a California Indian who lives in Susanville, painted the mural, incorporating images of Ohlones, including family photographs. Descendants of the original Bay Area residents expressed to her their fear that these images would be defaced. The annual application of anti-graffiti varnish covering the mural was intended to respond to that concern. Graffiti continues to deface the mural nonetheless, especially on the north side, which cannot be seen from the street.

In 1998, city funds became available for Jean LaMarr to repaint damaged portions of the mural. At that time a bronze plaque describing the mural was placed near the south face. On Indigenous People’s Day of that year, Ohlones from Watsonville danced and told stories beside the mural during a rededication ceremony.

Last year, the Civic Arts Commission appropriated $20,000 to repair the mural. That amount, however, was not enough to enable Jean LaMarr to come to Berkeley and do the work. It would have taken months; she would have had to pay rent, hire an assistant, pay for materials, etc. Instead, a young artist from Precita Eyes, a San Francisco group of muralists, did experimental work on the west face of the mural. The artist told me that anti-graffiti varnish had sealed in graffiti, and removing the varnish and the graffiti without harming the painting was problematic.

The artist worked on the mural for a short time; the experiment did not succeed. According to Maryann Merker of the Civic Arts Commission, the varnish has been sent to a lab in Los Angeles to see how to remove it without damaging the art.

In addition to this problem, a city maintenance worker waterblasted parts of the mural that do not have graffiti. “As a result,” observed Charles Siegel, who lives near Ohlone Park, “all the faces are faded, and the part of the west face that was recently restored is now streaked.”

To date, the City’s efforts to clean and restore the mural have been uncoordinated, inadequate, and unintentionally harmful. Having attended the last City Council meeting at which the great Berkeley filmmaker Les Blank was honored, I believe that it is time for the Council to honor the Ohlone people by properly restoring and protecting the work of art that depicts their presence here.

After hearing the Mayor speak about the city’s budgetary pressures, I know that an appropriation of funds that would make it possible for Jean LaMarr to spend months in Berkeley and repaint much, if not all, of the mural is a lot to ask of the Council. However, funding remains for the restoration in the Civic Arts Commission budget. It needs to be supplemented.

I recommend that the Council act in concert with Civic Arts and Parks, Recreation and Waterfront to get the job done. I ask that the City develop a coordinated plan to clean, restore, and protect the mural from now on and that we celebrate the restoration of the Ohlone Park Mural on, or before, Indigenous Peoples Day, 2015, its 20th anniversary.

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  • Charles_Siegel

    Thanks to Steve for writing this op-ed. Thanks also to Jesse Arreguin for his help in dealing with this issue.

    I would add one other suggestion for preventing vandalism in the future.

    There has been a constant problem with graffiti on the north face of the mural, because it is hidden from the street and is dark at night. There are few graffiti on any other faces of the mural.

    We could deter vandalism of the mural’s north face by adding a motion-activated light to the existing lamp post in the park. The current lamp is maybe 150 feet northeast of the mural and is not bright enough to illuminate its north face. It would not be expensive to add a powerful motion activated light pointing toward the mural to this existing lamp post. I think potential graffiti taggers would be surprised when they were suddenly bathed in strong light, and most would be deterred from tagging.

  • So the artist was offered $20,000 to do a restoration that “would have taken months,” but presumably he rejected the offer? I know plenty of artists (good ones too) that would be would be more than happy to take $20,000 for a few months work.

  • A neighbor

    In case you did not read the article thoroughly, LaMarr’s costs to redo the mural include paint and materials, paying an assistant, and paying rent while she lives here to do the work. This is a very large mural covering four walls — not a small job. Also LaMarr is not just a muralist, but Native American, which seems important in this instance.

  • Charles_Siegel

    As the article says, the original artist, Jean LaMarr, does not live in Berkeley. If she had taken the job, she would have had to rent a place in Berkeley for months.

    However, a local artist from Precita Eyes was willing to take the job with the funding available. The problem was that it was impossible to remove the graffiti coating without damaging the paint.

    So, now the city has to come up with a plan for restoring the mural and using a better graffiti coating to preserve it permanently. I think it is going to take a while for them to figure out what to do, which is why Steve set the goal of having the mural restored by Indigenous People’s Day of 2015.

  • The Sharkey

    It’s a nice enough mural I guess, but does this really seem like the best use of $20,000.00 for a city that can’t even find enough money to fill in potholes and repair roads without floating multi-million dollar bonds?

    If you really don’t want people to deface something, put up a fence or a solid plexiglass coating (that can be replaced when it is inevitably defaced) over it. Anything less, and it WILL be defaced over time and then we will just end up in the same place in another 10-20 years.

  • Yes, I read the entire article. I still don’t think $20,000 for a few months work, supplies and an assistant is a bad deal. This person is from Susanville, where females have a median annual income of $27,000 (and likely an equivalently low cost of living). So even if she only took home $10,000 after a few months work, she’d likely be on pace to surpass her hometown’s median income.

    Aside from whether or not $20,000 was sufficient (who knows, perhaps it’s not, there are several unknowns, like, how many months is “months?” 2? 20? How much do paint supplies cost?), I disagree with the premise of this opinion piece, which is that the city MUST fund the mural’s restoration. Here are things the city MUST do: fix the streets, eliminate the gangs, improve our public schools, revitalize west berkeley, do something about our homeless problem. I don’t think fixing a mural is on the top 20 list of things the city MUST do.

    As the article states, you live near this mural, so you likely have a more personal connection to it, which is completely understandable. But your (and the author’s) personal feelings should not trump the needs of the rest of the city.

  • The Sharkey

    Until the city can get their $#!% together, and take care of our basic infrastructure repair and safety issues, spending time and money fretting over mural repair is like a homeowner with limited funds blowing their wad on a luxury bathroom renovation instead of fixing a leaky roof.

  • The Sharkey

    Unless it’s protected by a cage, that light would get smashed real quick.

  • Exactly

  • Stephen Most

    The City has made a major investment in art, supporting performance venues downtown as well as murals. Art not only lifts the quality of life here, it brings people to Berkeley, which has economic value, leading to revenue that fixes potholes and other things. Like potholes, a damaged mural is a sign of a city in decline. We need to honor the first people of this place and serve its contemporary residents.

  • Charles_Siegel

    You missed the point that the city did not hire Jean LaMarr, because she would not do it for $20,000.

    Instead, the city hired a local artist who was willing to do it for $20,000, if possible. So, Jean’s refusal to take the bid has nothing to do with the needs of the rest of the city.

    I am not familiar with Jean LaMarr’s personal finances, and neither are you. I assume that, if she did not take this job, it is because she is a successful artist who can earn more.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I think that a decaying mural is a sign of a city in decline, just as decaying streets are a sign of a city in decline. We should not give up and let the city decay.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Good point. We need a light designed to be put in public places and designed so it cannot be smashed easily.

  • Charles_Siegel

    A solid plexiglass coating might be a good idea. I hope the city considers that when they are thinking about how to protect the mural permanently.

  • The Sharkey

    My point is simply that decaying roads/infrastructure are a higher priority, and with a limited budget the higher priority items should get tackled first.

    But I like your idea of the motion sensing light, a lot. It seems like a cost effective, easily actionable way to halt or at least slow down the damage to the mural.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I agree with most of what you said, but would not characterize “honor[ing] the first people of this place” as a need. It might be a want, even a strong desire, but it’s not a need.

  • Bill N

    I think that parks are part of the infrastructure of a city that need and should be maintained and supported just as roads and sidewalks etc.. Our parks are used by many if not most of the citizens and and are part of the city that makes for a desirable place to live. If the city commissions and pays for a mural it has the responsibility to keep it up with the rest of the park.

  • AnthonySanchez

    Motion-activated light with protection is a great idea. Jesse is meeting with the City Manager today so I will see if he can forward the suggestion made you and Sharkey.

  • AnthonySanchez

    Fascinating again (about the barrier). I’ll steal this idea as well :)

  • Charles_Siegel

    Thanks, Anthony. I appreciate your help and Jesse’s help on this.

    Note that there are two existing light posts in the park. I am thinking of the one that is northeast of the mural.

  • The Sharkey

    Please do! A shallow plexiglass case (like the kind put around interpretive displays in State/National parks) would probably be a best-possible solution. Kids are going to tag stuff no matter what you do. As long as the thing that’s being tagged can be easily replaced (sheet of plexiglass instead of the mural) it will save money in the long run.

  • Guest

    Perhaps interested people could apply for funding from other sources (such as the California Arts Council).

  • Guest

    The city frequently applies for grant funding; the main problem is whether there is staff to manage the grant.

  • savingracesarah

    Yeah but the “City” can’t even maintain lighting and sidewalks why should we expect them to be able to maintain a piece of art?

  • AnthonySanchez

    I printed your comments and those of Sharkey and Jesse presented them to the City Manager on Friday and she indicated they were great suggestions. We’ll see what happens.

  • AnthonySanchez

    Jesse shared your comment with the City Manager and it looks like they are already considering this idea for the mural that has been temporarily removed in the Council Chambers for fear of vandalism when the building becomes vacant. Sounds like they think it’s a good investment for other public arts rather than continual repair.

  • Cindy L.

    I remember when my sister, Jean, was doing this mural, the homeless would look out for vandalism of the artwork. You cannot hire just anyone to recreate artwork… the original has so much detail that cannot be recreated except by the original artist. The primary damage was from the water blasting done by city workers. The damaged the cement as well. A light and a fence might help to deter these vandals, who I presume are teens with nothing better to do.

  • Mel Content

    Maybe the next mural should be on canvas and displayed in an indoors location where people who are genuinely interested in it can see it, out of touch of the vandals. I realize that the idea of painting murals on the outside of buildings is well-intentioned, but if the people in the neighborhood don’t care enough to leave it alone, why bother?

  • Mel Content

    “I think that a decaying mural is a sign of a city in decline”

    So is rampant crime.