Erre, of Bogotá, Colombia, works on a piece entitled “No Boarders” during the Paint the Town event in Clarksdale Tuesday, October 1, 2019.

CLARKSDALE – Over the past two years, local and international street artists have added color to downtown buildings by painting murals as a part of the revitalization of the area. Though many expressed appreciation of the artworks, one piece this year caused an uproar on social media. As a result, city commissioners voted last week to create an arts commission to regulate public art. 

Creating art isn’t the problem. Not including the community’s input is, said Bo Plunk, Ward 1 Commissioner.

“I got about 60 complaints and people in all wards calling me,” said Plunk in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “People wanted a say in what was going on in their community. This is their home and I agree with that. What’s art to somebody ain’t always art to somebody else.”

Inspired by Bogotá, Colombia’s street art, Eric Stone, Clarksdale resident, author, and photographer, co-launched Paint The Town, an arts festival focused on enhancing and brightening the community here, in 2018. The event was featured on MPB Roads.

“When I first thought about it, it was on a trip down there with Meghan Maike (co-organizer of Paint The Town) … and we started scheming one night thinking how can we get some of this stuff up to Clarksdale and we got all excited,” Stone said in a September 2018 interview with Mississippi Today.

Stone and Maike nurtured the idea from conception to completion. They raised nearly $7,000 through grants and a GoFundMe campaign the first year. Four artists from Bogotá and a handful of local artists participated.

Many in the community inquired why local artists weren’t invited. However, public notices in the newspaper and social media calls were made, but they got few responses,  said Stone.

“This is just the start of something. Not the end-all, be-all,” he said. “

So, in 2019, more murals were painted with more local artists alongside the international artists. But, this time, outrage reached an all-time high on social media when international artist DJ Lu painted a martini glass with a rifle next to an African American woman’s face. The artist became aware of the controversy and painted over the martini glass.

A before image of DJ Lu’s mural of Jasmine Jackon, a Clarksdale native during 2019 Paint The Town event.

But the artwork ignited debate among residents. Many felt the image was inappropriate, considering the history of crime and poverty in this area with an 80 percent African American population.

The issue was brought before the board of commissioners in an October meeting, but the conversation was tabled. At the Nov. 11 meeting with a 3-to-1 vote – the board decided to take action and establish an arts commission. Each member and the mayor will appoint one person to the arts commission, but details of how the commission will operate have yet to be determined. 

Stone said city officials made a “bad mistake,” adding that the festival could lose participation from the artists because of potential new guidelines.

“I think its a basic free speech and private property issue,” Stone said. “I wonder if the city could get sued over that. I think the city is shooting itself in its own foot with attracting international artists and potentially putting itself in harm’s way with a lawsuit.”

Despite the board’s decision, Mayor Chuck Espy said the art here is a “breath of fresh air” and he 100 percent welcomes all artists to showcase their talents.

“As mayor of this city, I would encourage all artists to flock to city of Clarksdale,” he said. “.. Not only tourists, but people of this city like the diversity.”

Gallery: Paint the Town 2019

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.