A little more than a week ago, in downtown Columbus, someone threw white paint across the mural in Catfish Alley.
It appears a vandal poured paint into a Bud Light bottle and hurled it against the mural, splattering across the image’s lower corner. Some of the bottle’s glass bits stuck in the paint where it impacted.
Columbus Police Department officers first noticed the damage at about 3:10 a.m. on Aug. 29. They collected evidence from the scene.
“The evidence is in the lab,” Brent Swan, an investigator with CPD, told The Dispatch last week. “We are waiting on the evidence, but this is certainly being investigated.”
No arrests have been made, according to CPD.
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The mural — which was finished almost exactly a year ago — depicts the history of black entrepreneurship and community recreation that took place in the alley years ago.
The damage it sustained is a hard thing, personally, for Columbus councilman Kabir Karriem. His family is deeply rooted in Catfish Alley and his grandmother, Sallie Mae Jones, was among the original Catfish Alley business owners. She is featured as a center point in the mural.
“It’s very disturbing for my family,” Karriem said.
Karriem is hopeful the culprits will be caught and something like this never happens to the mural again.
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Mississippi University for Women art professor Alex Stelios-Wills, along with some of his students, created the mural. A protective coat was put on the image to make any vandalism easy to remove.
As soon as David Armstrong, the city’s chief operating officer, heard about the damage, he tried to fix it. He took some soap and water to the alley and began scrubbing. But the protection was designed to be most effective against common vandalism agents: spray paint and latex paint. He tried, but Armstrong could not remove the vandal’s paint.
Stelios-Wills said the culprit’s paint was not a latex base, and will be tougher to remove. The artist is disheartened about the damage, but said he doesn’t take it personally.
“As artists, we don’t react to our work being damaged as strongly as others do,” Stelios-Wills said.
Vandalism to murals can be random destruction, but Stelios-Wills said if it is intentionally targeting the murals message, then that is much more troubling.
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Stelios-Wills has worked on murals for over a decade. He started in Massachusetts repairing damaged murals, so he knows what it is going to take to clean up the mural in Catfish Alley.
It is fixable, he said, adding that the mural should be restored with in two weeks.
The good thing is some of the paint hit on the marble and green border outside the mural, so Stelios-Wills was able to try out different chemicals and cleaning products to see what would work without experimenting on the artwork itself.
“I’ll try to take care of everything,” Stelios-Wills said. “Once we’re satisfied with cleaning, it’s just repainting and resealing. It really shouldn’t take very long.”
He estimated it will take him and student volunteers five hours to clean the damage, then an additional five to 10 hours of restoration and repainting.
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On Friday morning, Stelios-Wills, Armstrong and Casey Bush, director of the city’s public works department, met at Catfish Alley to assess the damage and plan how to go about the restoration process.
Stelios-Wills began by dabbing Pine-Sol onto the thick white paint that splattered on the marble. It worked somewhat well. He then tried baby-oil. It did not work at all.
Stelios-Wills said the vandal’s white paint is likely alkyd based. Alkyds are used in both paints and mold castings, so paints with alkyd bases are thick and have more resin.
“Getting this stuff off is not going to be hard, it’s trying to avoid damaging what’s underneath that is the tricky part,” Stelios-Wills said.
After the household products, he tried paint thinner and stripper, which did the job of clearing the paint off of the marble, and gave him a clearer idea of what the clean-up process will involve.
The stripper softens up the paint, but it is powerful and could damage the mural underneath.
“Probably what we’ll do, if we have to go that route, is have a whole bunch of students with Q tips dabbing (paint stripper) around the spots where that is and then coming back with soap and water and washing it off again,” Stelios-Wills said.
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“It’s definitely been the most popular mural I’ve ever done,” Stelios-Wills said.
Last year, when he and his students were painting the mural, people were excited about it. The people depicted are real, and the mural traces back the history of what Catfish Alley means to the community. Most of the damage Stelios-Wills had seen to murals in the past has been basic vandalism and this seems to be different.
“It’s usually someone wanting to make a statement with the mural, you know, like someone tagging,” he said at the scene. “It’s very rarely something like this, which is so obviously like hostile.”
“This was hostile,” Armstrong agreed. “Definitely hostile.”
“I think that somebody knew what they were doing and knew what they were using and the damage it would do,” Armstrong added. “I really do. To me it was thought out and planned.”
In about two weeks, the mural will be fully restored.
Armstrong said he would be interested in purchasing a more effective, more expensive coating that would help prevent damage from a wider variety of paints in the future. They discussed possibly putting up some type of plexi-glass protection, too, but decided against it.
“That really would detract from what this is,” Armstrong said.