Will a Spoonful of Spray Paint Help the Medicine Go Down? New MTO Mural Sparks (More) Controversy
Berlin-based street artist, MTO, simply cannot seem to stay away from Sarasota, although it does not appear that his relationship with the city is a particularly sunny one these days.
Less than a month after his controversial ‘Fast Life’ mural was whitewashed from the Tube Dude’s building, the artist returned to Sarasota to create a second mural practically right next door at Sarasota Architectural Salvage—and this time, um, guys… He’s pissed. The mural depicts a larger-than-life doctor, the collar of his Hawaiian shirt peeking from beneath his lab coat as he leans over the street with his gigantic stethoscope, poised to either take his patient’s pulse—or, perhaps, to crush us with it. Although that floral print shirt alone reads as a mockery of the garish assault to fashion seen too commonly on the streets and beaches of Sarasota, the real insult lies in the doctor’s nametag and his sunglasses.
His nametag reads “Dr. Robin: Specialist for Leaders and Haters Bullshit Crisis, City of Sarasota,” and in the reflection of the Ray-Ban sunglasses (his Hater Blockers, perhaps?) he pushes down the bridge of his nose to take a closer look at his patient, a Tube Dude statue leers with dollar signs in place of eyes.
Apparently this mysterious Dr. Robin is the kind of doctor who prefers to rip the sterile, white gauze right off his patients and expose the stinging, oozing wounds beneath, rather than apply a soothing ointment to remedy the problem. “It’s an obvious statement against myself, my company and the City of Sarasota and its leaders,” said Scott Gerber, owner of the Tube Dude plant upon whose wall MTO’s ‘Fast Life’ mural resided for approximately five months.
“I assume MTO is offended by the capitalistic nature of my business, but I came here to create jobs and bring life to the neighborhood and I think I’ve been successful in that,” Gerber said. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, and if I’m the bad guy for trying to help this neighborhood, then so be it. Call me the bad guy.”
MTO’s Tube Dude-related angst and his beef with Gerber, however, may lie somewhat deeper than Gerber’s altruistic capitalist philosophy. Flimsy judgment and broken promises may be what truly rankled the artist, ultimately invoking his ire against the Tube Dude.
Both the former ‘Fast Life’ piece and the ‘Dr. Robin’ piece are part of the Going Vertical campaign, an initiative led by Sarasota Chalk Festival founder, Denise Kowal, to create murals in various locations throughout the city.
In a May 3 phone interview with TWIS, Gerber confessed that when he saw the original drawing for the ‘Fast Life’ mural on his own building, he “didn’t like it,” but cooperated with its placement on his business because, he said, “Who am I to say what ‘good’ art is?”
In the face of criticism from a handful of members of the surrounding neighborhood who believed the mural contained gang symbolism and references to a criminal lifestyle, Gerber spent the mural’s five-month shelf life waffling back and forth between defending it and promising to have it removed.
“I stood behind this man and gave him my support,” Gerber said. “I put my butt on the line, almost to the point that my business was going to suffer and the minute I take the mural down, he retaliates by creating this piece … I think [the new mural] was a pretty stupid move on [Kowal’s] part. She’s sponsoring a guy who is publicly insulting our city.” Kowal defended the mural and spoke of the artist’s frustration, stating that when Gerber made the final decision to remove ‘Fast Life’ from his building, he agreed to fly MTO back to Sarasota so that he could paint a new mural in its place, but ultimately never followed through on his word.
“MTO re-adjusted his whole life to return to America and do the new mural, but Scott reneged on every single promise he made—both publicly and to us—so we were in the position where we now have an artist who is being promised things by Scott while Scott ignores those promises,” she said.
March 10 came and went without the block party Gerber promised would hail the removal of ‘Fast Life.’ The mural stayed up through April while Kowal and the Going Vertical campaign parted ways with Gerber.
“The reality was that MTO was still coming, so we moved forward with another project for Going Vertical. It’s an entirely different piece than what he would have done, but I’m sure as to some of the energy behind it, the artist is speaking out about how he feels he’s been treated in some ways by certain people. It certainly is not directed at the community,” she said.
Gerber and Sarasota Architectural Salvage owner, Jesse White, maintain a respectful, friendly relationship as neighboring business owners, and both state that ‘Dr. Robin’ has no negative effect on that relationship. In fact, according to White, the doctor’s nametag and the Tube Dude reflection in his sunglasses did not appear in the sample of the image he originally approved for MTO to paint on his building.
“In a way, I like the mural a lot, but in a way it’s very stressful. I feel like the artist used this piece as an opportunity to make it personal and I’m not thrilled with that aspect,” White said.
“I just saw the mural as a doctor with a stethoscope taking the pulse of the community, but the message on the nametag and the reflection in the sunglasses were not present in the original drawing, so I didn’t expect it,” he added.
The word “Bullshit,” which is currently emblazoned across the doctor’s nametag, has raised a number of eyebrows, particularly in light of the fact that the ‘Fast Life’ mural was removed on grounds of its questionable language and symbolism.
“A number of people have stopped by to look at it and have told me they don’t like the cussing but they like the art,” White said.
Kowal stated that the wording will be modified to something less offensive.
“I did mention to the artist that one of the words I would appreciate him changing is the swear word,” Kowal said. “He wasn’t aware that it was so offensive and that’s just a language difference. So yes, that will be changed.”
According to Kowal, the mural’s unveiling was not scheduled to occur until next week, but since the first photos went viral on Facebook Thursday afternoon, the mural has been thrust into the spotlight prior to its completion. “This is something that’s being watched internationally. I know that Sarasota likes to be kind of myopic and think that it’s all about us, but there are cultural issues that are bigger than our own back door,” Kowal said.
“MTO is stressing things that are more global and worldly, so I think he’s documenting some of the work he’s doing and that it all has meaning for him. It’s not the end of the project yet, so this is all a little premature.”
She went on to say that she hopes people can look past the controversy of the mural and appreciate it for what incredible artistic talent it represents.
“Nobody in Sarasota can use spray paint like that. The surface [of the Sarasota Architectural Salvage building] not only undulates, but buckles, curves in and out and dips up and down. Everybody keeps asking ‘What did he paint?’ but no one really takes the time to show appreciation for his sheer, amazing talent,” she said.
Although White says he still has some reservations about the manner in which the message of the mural on the side of his business will be received, he says that he ultimately views it as an improvement to his building and is firm in his decision to stand by it.
“If I had commissioned the artist and said ‘Here’s a thousand dollars, now paint a flamingo,’ I’d be a little upset, but I’m doing this to support the Chalk Festival and I’m not the one paying for it. I believe the artist has the right to express himself and now I have to ‘walk the talk,’” White said.
“I need to honor not only the artist and his artwork, but my role as a business man in the community. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to play out, but I do know that one of the advantages of street art is that it always has a life of its own,” he added.
Although White said he notified the city, “to make them aware so that they don’t feel blindsided and to encourage a conversation about the piece,” the commissioners have yet to make any statement.
White went on to say that he plans to install a chalkboard near the mural so that anyone who wants to voice their opinion about it has a platform to do so. The chalkboard may not be up yet, but for the time being, we invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
So tell us, do you think Dr. Robin has the antidote that Sarasota’s art scene requires to survive and thrive, or is his medicine just too bitter to swallow?