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Eastside artists jailed over a mural?!

By Abe Louise Young, Fri., Nov. 13, 2009

Public Art

Mural artists Angel Quesada and Lannea Brooks were arrested and jailed on Oct. 24 for painting a botanical mural on a low wall over a bridge in East Austin. Quesada posted bail, but Brooks spent four days in the Travis County Jail in Del Valle. The two are now facing trial for this community beautification project, a brightly colored landscape of vines, flowers, and insects.

Lyons Road, just east of Pleasant Valley, is a fairly dismal scene. Weeds grow knee-high, and people use the drainage ditch as a trash can. The retaining wall in question is frequently tagged, then painted over with gray paint. I live on the next street over. Quesada and Brooks knocked on my door after their arrest with a petition for support.

"This bridge is frequently hit by gang graffiti," explains Quesada. "One night I went over there and started sketching the mural in three colors with paint, looking at the trees and plants surrounding the area. I worked on it many times, morning, noon, and night, before we were arrested. When the police came, they said, 'You guys know you're doing something wrong here, right?' and I said, 'No, I thought I was making the neighborhood pretty!'"

Quesada, an art educator at the Mexican American Cultural Center, has painted murals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin. Brooks, a glassblower, jewelrymaker, and volunteer literacy tutor, recently relocated to Austin from Florida. Their mural aims to be fine art. But it's not that simple. "The difference between art and graffiti is one word: permission," says Austin Police Department Detective Kevin Bartles. "I'm not really sure why some 'artists' think they are exempt from the rules of society. When still small children, most people learn the basic rules to live in society as ethical and moral people. If you want to paint, buy a big roll of paper and do it on your own material."

Asked to explain the process for getting permission to paint an artwork on a public right-of-way, Bartles replied: "You can't legally paint or mark on any public property. Public property belongs to the taxpayers, and most of them don't want their city to look like that." He's mistaken that there's no legal way to paint on public property; it can be done with a permit from Art in Public Places, the city's public art program, which the officer was unfamiliar with. But he is understandably a bit tense on the subject, since he's been a one-man gang graffiti response team for the city for years.

It is a misdemeanor to paint on a public right-of-way without permission, but four days in jail and a possible sentence of 90 days for Brooks and Quesada is awfully harsh for a cheerful scene of plants and flowers. The two may have acted with naivete or taken a calculated risk, but the positive intent of the work is clear.

Currently, three city agencies weigh in on the subject of images and words painted on walls. Let's see Art in Public Places, the Health and Human Services Department Graffiti Abatement Program, and the APD Gang Unit sit down for tea and find common ground on the matter.

And let's see the Lyons Road mural finished. The yellow background that Brooks and Quesada were working on will really make the green vines and pink flowers pop.

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