Wednesday, June 19, 2024

‘Public nuisance’ or public art? Muralist wants Wilmington to change its ways

By deeming some murals "graffiti" rather than public art, is the city functioning as an objective gatekeeper of taste? Or is it protecting the city from a "nuisance?"

WILMINGTON — Show him a wall, and he’ll see a canvas.

If you’ve made it down to Carolina Beach this year, you might have noticed Rob Fogle’s handiwork. Namely, the Fort Fisher Hermit homage behind The Last Resort and the nautical, pirate-themed Flaming Amy’s storefront. He’s also painted walls in Philadelphia, Charlotte and Richmond – but none within Wilmington’s city limits.

Bright colors and bold lines are Fogle’s schtick, perfect for big-picture concepts.

Whether it’s on a wall or some other durable material, he tries to sneak puns into his pieces whenever he can; “Punk Rocky,” a punk-rock portrait of Rocky Balboa, “Poe Poe,” a two-headed gun and badge-wielding Edgar Allan Poe, and “Alien in Vader,” an alien bursting out of Darth Vader’s stomach.

Mural code

Lately, Fogle has been at a tug-of-war with Wilmington over painting murals in the city proper.

The dispute falls over a simple, subjective interpretation, in how the city distinguishes “art” from “graffiti.”

Wilmington’s municipal code says that “graffiti,” painted on a private building even with permission from the owner, may be deemed a public nuisance

However, the code encourages, and in some cases requires, property to be used for common space. In mixed-use common space, “murals” are outlined as a viable option to incorporate 10 percent public use in the property. 

“Artwork is strongly encouraged to be integrated into public space settings wherever possible,” the code states.

The day after Fogle painted his first mural in the Brooklyn Arts District downtown, the city ordered him to take it down.

“If you don’t allow art here (the Brooklyn Arts District) you guys need to call it something else,” Fogle said.

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By deeming Fogle’s mural “graffiti” rather than public art, the city effectively functioned as an objective gatekeeper of taste.

City spokeswoman Malissa Talbert described the city’s take on murals as “tricky,” because the city’s rules treat them like signs — or graffiti.

“We treat murals like signs and enforce through our zoning division,” she said, adding that graffiti is enforced through the city’s code enforcement department.

“As far as distinguishing a difference in terms of city’s regulations, one is vandalism of property and the other is done by the owner or tenant of a property to draw attention to a business or use, but a sign installed by the owner/tenant that looks like graffiti isn’t allowed,” she said. “In these types of situations, if the owner/tenant doesn’t contact the city either about the vandalism or a sign that looks like graffiti, the city will go out and inspect if we are made aware of it. If a determination is made that there is a code violation, then we will begin to work with the owner/tenant to address the situation.”

Painting the town

If Fogle had his way, he’d like to paint a giant, four-story prehistoric sloth on a parking garage downtown. If it worked before, maybe it will work this go around – his concept for the Fort Fisher Hermit was picked up by The Last Resort after Fogle had put his idea out there.

At the Greenfield Lake Skatepark, Fogle is itching for the opportunity to take spray paint to Wilmington property, with the city’s blessing.

For now, Fogle says it’s a yellow light, but at least it’s not a red one.

“It’s a really big deal because that’s the city allowing me to spray paint something,” Fogle said. “That’s a good milestone because once they open the door, I’ll just push it on open.”

Johanna Ferebee can be reached at or @j__ferebee on Twitter

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