Graffiti art made Wynwood into Miami’s hottest ’hood. But apparently it won’t fly in Westchester, the old-line Cuban enclave in suburban Miami-Dade County.
The owners of Farside Gallery, a long-established art space in an old house located on — of all places — traffic-choked, unbecoming Galloway Road, asked a rising young artist to paint over the outside walls with graffiti as a special exhibit.
Inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel murals, artist Arturo Mosquera covered the house in colorful squiggles, his own quirky graffiti reinterpretation of the Renaissance masterwork. It took him a month and a half. Mosquera is physically disabled from a brain injury he suffered 10 years ago but has continued to make art that increasingly has drawn recognition.
But after someone complained about his murals, a Miami-Dade code enforcement officer slapped a $200 fine on the gallery and ordered the artwork removed.
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When Farside owner Arturo Mosquera, who happens to be the artist’s father, questioned the fine, the county attorney’s office cited a nuisance statute and added: “The paintings appear to be scrawled graffiti and give the impression that the house is abandoned and uncared for, which has a deleterious effect on the neighborhood.”
Everyone’s a critic, it seems.
Except, say the Mosqueras and others in Miami’s tight-knit art community, that shouldn’t be the county’s role. On Thursday, the younger Mosquera whitewashed over his graffiti mural — which was always meant to be temporary — with the help of Pedro Vizcaino, an older artist who has been a mentor. But the Mosqueras, Vizcaino and their backers were still smarting from the county’s action.
“I told the code enforcement officer it’s art, not vandalism,” the elder Mosquera, a respected collector, said. “The aesthetics is always a matter of taste. Whether it’s good or bad art, that’s up to the critics.”
And the critics – the real ones — seem to like the younger Mosquera’s art. His work has been favorably reviewed in El Nuevo Herald and several art publications.
Critic and editor Beth Dunlop attended the opening of the graffiti exhibit, which drew a cadre of local artistic heavyweights like sculptor Robert Thiele. Dunlop said the elder Mosquera is known for high standards and pronounced the son’s murals “fine.”
Like others, she called the county fine an overreaction, especially given the gallery’s immediate surroundings.
“It’s so ridiculous,” Dunlop said. “You’re on 87th Avenue. It’s not Park Avenue. It’s a commercial strip.”
Officials with county code enforcement and the county attorney’s office could not be reached Thursday.
But Mitchell Bierman, an attorney who represents South Florida municipalities on zoning and other matters, said the county must be careful not to act arbitrarily in regulating expression, though he stressed that there is no clear, bright line.
It’s one thing if the county can point to rules that say homes can be painted only in certain colors, or that expressly regulate graffiti art, he said. But in merely judging the paintings a nuisance, the county could risk a challenge on First Amendment grounds, he said.
“If they’re making an aesthetic judgment, that could raise questions. If a famous graffiti artist like Shepard Fairey made the murals, would they say the same thing?” Bierman said. “Can they say, ‘If I find it ugly, you can’t have it?’ ”
To be sure, the senior Mosquera’s set-up is unconventional. An orthodontist, he has his office next door to the gallery, which he opened to afford Westchester residents the opportunity to experience contemporary art in their own patio on the far side of Miami — hence the space’s name. He also exhibits work by noted artists in his waiting room to expose young patients to museum-quality art.
The gallery, which is a nonprofit, non-commercial venture, has long been known for edgy exhibits and performances. There have been things set on fire in the yard and naked performers on the roof, which Vizcaino said stopped traffic but drew no complaints. There have been two previous temporary graffiti murals on the exterior walls; one also drew a formal complaint, though nothing came of it, Mosquera said.
So he was surprised to get a warning, followed rapidly by a fine in January. He asked county code enforcement officials for applicable standards and provided the Miami Herald an emailed response from a supervisor, Maritza Ortega. She told him that, because his gallery is in a residentially zoned area, “you are not allowed to paint anything that could be construed as a display, advertisement, or promotion of a product or service.”
Mosquera said he won’t shy away from commissioning up new exterior murals on his gallery. He hopes the county will be more accommodating when he does, and leave art to the art people.
“What’s problematic is the guidelines are very subjective,” Mosquera said. “We do not want to be discriminated against arbitrarily. I’ve been doing this over 20 years. We’ve had great critical acclaim.
“We’ve been very, very good citizens for Westchester.”