Everyone has probably heard by now that the controversial MTO ‘Fast Life’ mural was painted over on April 7. Perhaps it’s just me, but the circus surrounding the mural was actually more interesting than the work of art itself.
In summary, French street artist, MTO, installed the mural on the Tube Dude building in November as part of the Going Vertical initiative during the 2011 Sarasota Chalk Festival. The artist chose to depict an image of two downturned hands, fingers crossed, with a message tattooed across them reading “Fast Life.”
The hands were modeled after those of Sarasota resident, Jeremy Cattanach. According to Cattanach, the artist asked him to cross his fingers to make his hands look like “M’s” for MTO. Cattanach told Sarasota Patch that to him, the tattoo’s message simply means that “life goes by fast; you’re not promised tomorrow. I love to surf, love to skate and love the artistic rush.”
However, some believed the mural’s imagery evoked gang symbolism and used terminology [link contains adult language] that depicted the surrounding Newtown neighborhood in a negative light. The same finger placement, when the hand is held with the fingers pointed up or to the side, is the identifying gesture sometimes used by the West Side Crips, one of the largest and most violent gangs in the United States.
Proponents of the mural said that because the fingers were pointed downward, the perceived gang symbolism was rendered moot. Fair enough – but it requires little imagination to see why the mural made some neighborhood residents uncomfortable, especially when taking into account that “fast life,” a phrase very much open to individual interpretation, is often associated with a criminal lifestyle.
The Sarasota Herald reported that a door-to-door survey designed by individuals living in the community revealed that while half of the 100 people in 90 households surveyed had no qualms with the mural, the other half responded negatively. One quarter of respondents made direct reference to gang symbolism.
The mural stood for more than four months while building owner, Scott Gerber, kept both its supporters and its detractors in suspense while he flip-flopped back and forth between agreeing to paint over the mural and staunchly defending it. In February, he announced it would be removed in 30 days, but then waited nearly two months to do the deed.
As the news reports continued to pile up, I ultimately found Gerber’s antics even less enthralling than watching my human friends play Pong for hours on end. However, the passionate arguments that the mural sparked at dinner parties and on bar stools gave me pause to think because everyone either loved or hated the mural. No one was indifferent, which is perhaps the mural’s greatest success.
Allow me to wax philosophical for a moment.
My dear humans, forgive me when I begin by saying that compared to cats, your species received the short end of the evolutionary stick in terms of your survival instincts, your speed and agility, your senses of sight, smell and hearing and your overall level of fuzzy cuteness.
Your hands and the things you do with them, however, are nothing short of amazing.
At the most basic utilitarian level, your hands are the tools with which you both build your communities and tear them to the ground – two activities you seem to approach with equal fervor. You have also learned to use your hands to give the gift of language to the mute and the deaf, and most miraculously, to create art.
Did you know that the very first self-portraits created by early man were the handprints deliberately immortalized on cave walls? Hundreds of handprints dating as far back as 32,000 years line the walls of prehistoric caves throughout the world. Perhaps I’ve been hitting the catnip a bit too hard, but to me these handprints seem to reach out through the millennia to say “We are unique individuals connected to a greater community, and this is our mark on the world.”
Approaching the hands in the MTO ‘Fast Life’ mural from that perspective is what ultimately colors my opinion of the work and makes me question whether that particular piece of art really ever had a place on that wall.
The problem ultimately boils down to this: Due to its very public street side placement, the mural served as a visual document to represent the community in which it was located. Because its intended message was never adequately communicated, the confusion surrounding it served only to legitimize the opinions of its opponents who decried it as a poor representation.
On a purely aesthetic level and as a fan of MTO’s other work, I liked the ‘Fast Life’ mural. It was beautifully crafted and I think it is a shame to see beautiful things destroyed – unless, of course, those things happen to be my human’s furniture upholstery. However, I cannot help but think that if the composition weren’t so derivative of gang culture (no matter how unintentional), it would have been better received – welcomed, even – by a greater percentage of the public.
Although it was painted on private property, the mural was a piece of art created with the intention of serving as a centerpiece for the surrounding community and a launching point for more local art. Unfortunately, rather than bringing the community together, it resulted in its division. Although I believe this result was entirely unintentional, is it really the place of those on either side of the fence to say “My opinion is more valid than yours” to the other?
I find it frustrating that a mural with so much potential to celebrate Sarasota and legitimize this city’s efforts to emerge as an internationally-recognized arts community met a quick demise due to an entirely avoidable social controversy. Because the artist and those who commissioned the piece evidently failed to anticipate the possibility that it would be perceived as gang-related, the mural was doomed from the moment Cattanach crossed his fingers to pose for it.
The mural’s days were numbered before MTO’s paint even dried, but it did serve an important purpose. For better or worse, ‘Fast Life’ got people talking about art – an occurrence that simply does not happen often enough. At the very least it diverted attention from the now-infamous ‘Unconditional Surrender’ statue that stands along the bay front and gave the public a different piece of art over which to argue.
More importantly, it sparked a conversation about the power of art and the responsibility shouldered by those courageous enough to take it upon themselves to act as the artistic representatives for an entire community.
Furthermore, MTO’s mere presence in Sarasota during the festival is worthy of celebration, as it brings this city one step closer to recognition as a legitimate hub for the arts. The mural may be gone, but it leaves behind a fresh blank canvas. Perhaps other artists – maybe even some residing within the Tube Dude’s neighborhood – will be inspired to try their own hand at representing this vibrant community through art, should Gerber decide to commission a new mural for the building.
Perhaps MTO’s mural raised more questions than any of us really know how to answer, but correct me if I’m wrong: Are those questions and the dialogue they spark not the very reason why you humans create art in the first place?
Because art does not come with a book of guidelines, we may never agree as to whether or not Gerber made the right decision when he finally removed the ‘Fast Life’ mural from his wall, and we will certainly never reach an agreement as to what the image meant, but at least there is one element to this story that cannot be disputed:
Yes, Sarasota, it is true. We have proved that we are perfectly capable of arguing for months on end about what a man chooses to do with his fingers. Good work, team. I would start a slow clap, but my paws aren’t very effective for applause.
Now will somebody please go make some art so that we have something else to talk about?