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What we have here is a failure to communicate about art

by San Diego Union-Tribune


Poor Encinitas.

Has any city ever gained so much — and yet suffered so — from “illegal” art?

Much of the pain can be written off to the failure of officials to find a suitable language to describe what’s happening within the city’s boisterous borders.

On July 6, Richard Phillips, Encinitas deputy city manager, wrote one of the all-time tone-deaf letters to Carlsbad-based artist Bryan Snyder, a street-smart champion of guerrilla art and the creator of the Vincent Van Gogh dress-up of the Cardiff Kook.

(Editor’s note: Before Leucadia artist Mark Patterson stepped forward to claim credit, Jenkins hinted that Snyder was the likely creator of the Surfing Madonna mosaic. So much for the columnist’s artistic insight.)

In his robotic letter to Snyder, Phillips begins terribly: “In March 2011, a City of Encinitas public artwork, Magic Carpet Ride, was vandalized (incredulous italics mine) with decorations and other materials ….”

Phillips is referring, of course, to the lovingly detailed Van Gogh birthday commemoration that Snyder filmed to the tune of Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night.”

By anyone’s lights, this was a triumph, perhaps matched only by the celebrated “Jaws” installation in which the fey surfer boy was attacked by a shark.

Having gotten his “vandal” shot in, Phillips goes on to cite the city’s public arts program’s boilerplate desire “to respect cultural heritage, promote artistic development, and add dignity and beauty to the public spaces of the City of Encinitas.”

Phillips gratuitously adds that “the defacement of public art is disrespectful to the artwork, artist and is not condoned or allowed by the City of Encinitas.”

Who, pray tell, could disagree with that?

Phillips then threatens Snyder — and asks for his help: “Please be advised that it is unlawful for any person to intentionally damage or deface public property and it is considered an act of vandalism. Because of the numerous defacements conducted on the sculpture, the art piece has been damaged and is in need of repair. I ask that you respect the artist and the art piece and I seek your cooperation in discouraging vandalism of public property.”

Snyder’s response? He posted Phillips’ letter on his website,, and wrote a manifesto calling out Encinitas for inconsistency. (The city has signaled a laissez-faire approach so long as the dress-ups aren’t “malicious.”) In defending street art, Snyder wrote that “it is time to extract street art from the definition of vandalism.”

Like the Surfing Madonna, the mosaic regularly derided by the City Manager’s Office as “graffiti,” the serial costumes for the Kook have, to steal from Phillips’ letter, become a pillar of the coast’s “cultural heritage.”

While promoting hands-on artistic development, the Kook has added beauty to the city (though I suppose, one must concede, it’s pulled on the beard of the city’s dignity).

Given the short, but storied, history of the Kook and the Madonna, you have to wonder how the City Manager’s Office can use words so inartistically.

Take vandalism.

Leaving aside its legal definition, the word denotes the willful destruction of property. Think sledgehammer, not costumes.

Granted, the statue appears to have suffered some minor damage, possibly sustained during its many late-night makeovers. That’s a fair civic complaint. But at the same time, there’s no evidence the statue has been the target of criminals bent on its destruction. On the contrary.

Or take deface, a variant of which Phillips uses three times in the context of the Kook.

To deface means to disfigure, to change the appearance. It is a violent act.

In dressing up the Kook, local artists have been notably funny, ironic and even kind. The costumes are the opposite of defacement. They’re a kind of enhancement along the lines of photographer William Wegman’s classic renditions of his Weimaraners.

Did Wegman deface his dogs? I don’t think any art critic would say so.

Imagine what could have happened to the Kook. Many in the local surfing community hated it. The boy was considered a mockery of the athleticism of a demanding sport.

Instead of vandalizing the Kook, instead of defacing him, the nocturnal artists transformed him.

The success has been obvious. Calendars with Kook costumes were produced. There’s an iPhone app to play dress-up with the Kook (

Sure, it’s awkward for city bureaucrats. They’d rather refer to municipal codes, not dictionaries, for the words to describe fugitive art the public loves.

Interestingly, the Kook’s creator, Matthew Antichevich, said in an interview in the North County Times that reservations could be made for artists to dress up the statue, thus allowing for more accountability for damage.

Officially sanctioned vandalism?

Imagine the city manager’s form: “Vandals must sign up at least a day in advance. All defacements must be taken down by sunset at the expense of the vandals.”

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