This story was originally published by the Austin Weekly News, a newspaper published by nonprofit Growing Community Media.
AUSTIN — A mural recently unveiled at 5908 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin has been removed. The mural was a collaboration between the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and the Chicago Department of Public Health as part of the city’s Vax-Chi-Nation program that encourages community members to get vaccinated.
The “Chicago Love” piece was created by artist Joseph “Sentrock” Perez this year and was met with criticism by local community members who were offended by what they believed were racial caricatures depicted in the mural.
“Every time I look at that mural, I remember reading and seeing pictures of our Black ancestors being portrayed as Jigger Boo’s, Coons [and] other distasteful images in some of our history books,” Austin resident Roman Morrow wrote in a letter published in May in Austin Weekly News.
“A cartoonish imagery and caricature describing Blacks with big lips, big teeth, big nose, nappy hair and round face that symbolizes a pig-like or monkey persona,” Morrow added.
Austin resident Herbert Morin echoed Morrow’s sentiment. Morrow said the caricatures were offensive and that he and other community members were left out of the process leading to the mural’s commission and installation.
“If [city officials] had asked somebody [in the community], they would’ve known it wasn’t a good idea,” Morin said. “They never ask. You just look up and stuff like that is up and then they get mad when we don’t like it.”
Sentrock declined to address the mural’s removal when reached by email. The artist only posted a terse message on his Instagram account: “No comment, I am too heartbroken.”
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 64% of residents in the 60651 zip code, where the mural was located, are vaccinated. It’s unclear whether or not IDPH will replace Sentrock’s mural with another one.
When reached for comment, Andrew Buchanan, the director of public affairs for the Chicago Department of Public Health, did not outline any future plans for a replacement mural. He addressed the community’s response to the mural, but did not confirm whether or not the outcry by some residents was the reason the mural was removed.
“This program commissioned colorful murals around the city and had a special focus on communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Buchanan said. “Unfortunately, there was some public opposition voiced to this particular mural and a decision was ultimately made to have it painted over.”
On Aug. 5, Morrow said that after his letter to the editor was published, more community members became interested in the mural.
“People who hadn’t already seen the mural took a walk and saw it and agreed with me about how offensive it was,” Morrow said. “Art is subjective, I know, but with things like this, it’s important to tap artists from the community.”
Morrow said that he was told by a local alderman and a prominent Austin businessman that city officials saw his letter, which prompted them to remove the mural.
“I haven’t been contacted directly by the city, but I hope that if there is a replacement, they bring in an artist from the community to do it and with full transparency,” he added. “At the end of the day businesses come and go. The residents are the ones who live here and have to look at [public art] and be affected by it, so we should have input on community art.”