Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Defacing of the Kurt Vile Mural

I had not heard of the Kurt Vile mural until yesterday. To be honest I had not heard of Kurt Vile either. This picture was retweeted by a band I followed, with appropriate 'unchill', 'uncool' twitterings. I looked into it.

It appears that a former graffitti artist named Steve Powers aka ESPO was commissioned to paint the mural by indie musician Kurt Vile. Consisting of track titles and lyrics, it preceded the launch of Vile's 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. A picture of the mural provided the album's cover art.

This year a local DJ named Lee Mayjahs painted over the lower part of the mural. He thought it was an eyesore, and believed that it had sparked a rash of graffiti around the city that he loved.

A photographer who captured this iconoclastic/public-spirited citizen during the clean up wrote, 'So this is the ignorant piece of shit that took it upon himself to buff the Kurt Ville (sic) mural. When I asked if he knew it was a commissioned piece by a world renown (sic) artist he said he did and he didn't give a shit. He claimed it attracted graffiti to the neighborhood.'

There is irony in the indignant condemnation of the unauthorised destruction of an artwork which draws its credentials from graffiti and pretends to be graffiti – an art form rooted in anarchy and illegality. And frankly, when one looks at images of the original, I have sympathy for the evil/admirable citizen. A Banksy or a Best this is not. In fact, it looked crap. It looks better on the album, but that is because of its context. The artwork alone would be underwhelming; it is the anarchic image of graffiti in an urban context which provides the edge. And in this, it is a masquerade; this was not a vox populi statement, it was the commissioned product of a hard-headed, commercial marketing strategy. Not quite so chill then.

As Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program decries the violation, I wonder too at the principle of institutional support for what is essentially an advertisement. I gather the mural is to be recreated in London, Los Angeles and New York. Wakin on a Pretty Daze reached forty-one in the UK charts and is now available in a de luxe edition. McDonalds should be so lucky.

DJ Lee Mayjahs appears to be mortified by what he has done. He had no idea about the significance and popularity of the mural and was simply seeking to clean up his city. He has offered to pay for the repainting of the mural, and it will indeed be repainted. Graffiti is an ephemeral art form; in believing this mural to be graffiti, Mayjahs was perhaps unconsciously paying it the highest compliment. He has also generated more world-wide publicity in defacing it than Kurt Vile could have dreamed of. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if the defacing was a planned element of the album marketing strategy.

Maybe DJ Lee Mayjahs, anarchically chill to his own principles, deserves a break from the bile of the Twittersphere.


  1. Hmm. It's a personal opinion but to me, graffiti always looks rank and down-at-heel and rundown. Possibly I am an old reactionary. That this piece was driven by money and profit makes it worse. If all graffiti artists can prove they were paid to undertake their work does it make graffiti OK period?

    1. I'm inclined to agree, Steve, except maybe in the most run-down urban environments, or when it is particularly skilful or witty. I'm always charmed by historic graffiti, be it Viking or 19th century.