Murals and the Mind Police
William Steen, an artist of some note, spends his days with hands-on work at the Menil Collection. But his heart is squarely within the quadrants and residents of Houston's rough-hewn East End.
For the last ten years, his home has been the venerable landmark of that area, the old Sterling Cleaners and Laundry. It also houses his studio. And the vast stucco canvas -- the 100-foot-long southern exterior of the 16-foot-high building -- that reflects the ever-evolving creative talents of fledgling young artists he has brought together from the community.
On July 1, Steen pulled up to his studio home after an out-of-town trip. He recognized instantly that something was very wrong, very different about the environs. When he had left a few days earlier, the long wall had displayed the usual variety of colorful oversize symbols and imagery of life and death in the East End. Some 15 young artists had created it.
He looked at the south side of the building now -- and saw nothing but a flat, whitewashed wall, void of vitality.
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Steen thought he knew who the culprits were. That was quickly confirmed when he hit the playback button on his telephone answering machine.
The voice of the Houston Police Department was on the recording. An officer had called to blandly notify him that HPD had decided to get a volunteer group and have it "repaint my wall," Steen says. The call ended abruptly -- but that was not the end of the message police were sending to this artist.
Steen is hardly naive about the reality of life -- both for kids and cops -- in the East End. He is well aware of the anti-graffiti work under way in the area, and equally aware of the right to artistic expression on one's own private property.
In 1998 he met with a service group called Youth Advocates to contribute what he could to the community. The result was that he and a collection of young artists, ranging in age from 15 to 25, entered into a non-monetary contract:
"I, William Steen, the owner of the building have given permission to the artists listed below to use the exterior walls of this building as a canvas upon which they may create their artistic statements. Let it be known to all interested parties that these artists belong to the civic organization Youth Advocates."
The contract went on to say that the artists even had access to his studio. Why the legalese? Steen could imagine the kind of hassling they could get from cops who saw kids painting up a building in that area. The contract would provide them with legal protection, he assumed.
Daniel Anguilu, Guillermo Morales, Carlos Martinez, Chris Rodriguez, Jason Nava and Roland Saldana signed on. Since then, they have labored in anonymity on their wall on Harrisburg. The art always was changing, something new almost every week. Depending on mood and inspiration, there might be a cartoonish pig's head or a solemn skull. Artists of the genre are known as "writers" because of the emphasis on oversize lettering they used.
"We have had some nationally known writers come and work on this wall," he says. "One kid, from San Francisco, had a show at the Sewall Gallery at Rice University. He came out here and worked on the wall."
The writers are doing letters or words "that are stylized to the point of abstraction," he says. "They want to break into the art world; they want to be a part of it. Like any artist, they want their work to be appreciated, bought and shown."
Group members have also shown themselves to Steen to be reliable. Asked if they were Hispanic or gang members, Steen says, "They are Houstonians. Just like you or me, they are Houstonians."
"The artists have a key to my home," Steen says. But if it sounds like a cooperative venture, a legitimate avenue for youthful expression that no one could challenge, the conflicts have been nearly continual in this effort. And the only problem, according to the artist, is the Houston police.
After Steen discovered that the wall work had been painted over, he returned the message left by police. "I told them that this was private property. How could police just come and repaint my house?"
An officer told him it was the work of the city's anti-graffiti task force. "She informed me that the police had numerous complaints from the neighborhood," he says.
Steen calls that hogwash, saying that only one group has complained: the police. "I think that they were, at the very least, being culturally insensitive," Steen says. "The artwork on my wall was made by people in this community. They like it."
Steen says that contract or not, the cops have hassled the group since the beginning of the mural endeavor. Officers convinced themselves that it is a street gang creation, he says. "They questioned kids from the first day. They threatened them with arrest."
Police told Steen there were indications of "tagging," the use of insignias to identify a gang. An officer told him HPD wasn't going to allow the artists to paint on his wall "because it was something that was going to 'bleed' out into the community."
To the police's anti-graffiti task force, the wall was "like a bull with a red flag," he says. "They've got to cover it up."
Steen acknowledges that his young protégés at times became overly enthusiastic in their artistic endeavors. They expanded their painting to a low wall across the street from his place and even painted a tree on his property. "The last time I checked, it was my tree."
As for the gang tagging symbols, Steen says, "I don't know what they are talking about.
"I have a serious problem with the Houston Police Department telling me the content of an artist's work." He says that one cop admitted to him that the desecration of the mural on his wall by the police amounted to censorship.
"I told him that I have a problem with the police dictating the content of the work," he says. "What they are doing is criminalizing these kids."
Steen says that the cops are unfairly profiling his young friends, who are folk artists. "There could be a signature in that art that is profiled as being from a gang member, and it could be on my wall. I wouldn't know it. These kids are creative. They need an outlet. They need a chance."
That view is echoed by Susanne Theis, executive director of the Orange Show, which supports folk art murals and other works done outside the mainstream spectrum of the arts. The Orange Show has sponsored several murals. She concedes that tagging has been a problem. "They would sneak some of these references into the mural itself," she says.
But Theis says that overall, working on a mural can be beneficial. "We had two rival gangs working on one mural," she remembers. "One gang was working at one end; the other was at the other end. They even played different music as they worked. As each set of artists painted their way toward the middle, they eventually began to relate to themselves as people."
She says police may have overstepped their bounds by painting over Steen's mural. "It doesn't seem respectful of private property to paint over something when the owner is out of town."
But Theis says that freedom of expression in Houston's East End may have limits. "Doesn't it go back to yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater?" she asks. "It's free speech, but when it represents violence, you have to look at the greater good of the community."
Mary Margaret Hansen is executive director of the Greater East End Management District, which paints over gang tagging in the 16-square-mile area that the district calls home.
However, she defends Steen's artists and the project, saying she's sorry that the mural was destroyed. "It was probably a genuine mistake," she says.
"I've watched the murals change over the years," Hansen says. The Steen group is among the "legitimate graffiti artists and art, and that is exciting," she says.
Police with the anti-graffiti task force refused to return phone calls. However, late last week HPD spokesman John Leggio said, "The department is going to launch an investigation of this matter, and if the department has done anything wrong, there is a procedure where individuals can be reimbursed for damages. That investigation began today."
Something else began last weekend. William Steen and his group of young artists started hauling paint out to the south wall of his studio. They looked at the long white stucco canvas, then went back to work creating a new mural.
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