Paint it black? A beloved community mural is painted over in northeast Minneapolis

A man looking confused, shrugging, with arms out, next to a building
Minneapolis artist Gustavo Lira stands in front of the site of his former mural “Flor de Piña,” which was painted over last week in northeast Minneapolis.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Artist and art educator Gustavo Lira stands in front of a freshly painted black wall in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. He points to the outline of a loon still visible beneath the fresh coating.

“That’s the head of the loon. You see the eye?” Lira says, tracing a raised line in the paint.

A week ago, Lira’s colorful mural spanned the length of the building at 1851 Central Ave. NE. On one end, a loon stretched out its wings, says Lira, symbolizing Minnesota embracing different cultures. Between a toucan and a flamingo, a smiling woman held a pineapple on her shoulder. 

A colorful mural painted on the side of a building
Artist Gustavo Lira painted the mural “Flor de Piña" with the help of other local artists Xilam Balam and Tierra Diaz in 2022 in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
Gustavo Lira

“It was a young woman that represents the traditional dance from my hometown, my mother’s hometown, Oaxaca, Mexico,” Lira says. The dance is called “Flor de Piña,” which is also the name of the mural. 

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A former art student modeled for the mural, which Lira painted with artists Xilam Balam and Tierra Diaz less than two years ago. It was funded by a Great Streets grant from the city of Minneapolis. 

Lira says neither the building’s owner nor tenant contacted him before painting over the mural last week. The Minneapolis artist has been painting murals in Minnesota for decades. He says this is the first time anything like this has happened. 

“In one hour, they covered a mural that took us months,” Lira says. “I was shocked. How could this be happening?”

Aslam Jamal says it was his decision to paint over the mural.

He is opening a Yemeni coffee shop called Qahwah House in the building this fall. Jamal says he was not aware that it was a community mural; he thought it was specifically made for the former tenant, the restaurant Half Fancy, which closed in December.

Jamal says he had it painted black as the base for a new mural he wants tailored to the coffee house.

“I didn’t know it was part of a community project — that mural was — and I was never told by the landlord that it’s part of the community.” Jamal says. “I was surprised that I didn’t know about all the details, otherwise I would have done it differently.”

Jamal adds, “I wish I knew it. I would have maybe continued keeping [the mural], because that’s what I want, to bring community together. That’s what our whole business concept is.”

The building owner is Tryg Truelson, of the Truelson restaurant business family that used to run Porky’s. Truelson says the previous tenant, the restaurant, had worked with Lira, not him. As a result, it didn’t occur to him to discuss it with Jamal.

“If I ever had any contact with the artist himself, I would have remembered it, or called and told [Jamal] not to paint it,” he says. “To be honest with you, I completely forgot about it because the old tenant who was in there had given the OK to paint the mural.”

Truelson adds, “I really was kind of left out of the loop on the whole thing. I never met the artist, never talked to him. I probably should have remembered that it was there.”

Ryley Gahagan, the owner of Half Fancy, worked with Lira as well as the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber and the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, which were part of the grant process. Gahagan says he wanted to make the mural even larger than originally proposed, so he funded a scissor lift.

“I kicked in about $4,500 of my own money to get that mural done,” Gahagan says. “I thought it was a good investment in the building and the community.”

He adds that “it was a beautiful mural, it was extremely well executed, it was a cool subject matter. I think it brought a lot to that corridor, along with all the other murals that they’re doing as part of the project. I mean, it was a neat undertaking to beautify Central, and now it’s that literal black mark.”

Anna Becker, executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association (NEMAA), says the mural was part of Mural Central, a collaboration with NEMAA, the chamber and Public Functionary, an artist space in northeast. 

The removal of the mural has caused an uproar, especially in the arts district as it prepares for its biggest annual event Art-A-Whirl, a NEMAA event that runs Friday through Sunday. Becker says it’s one of the country’s largest open studio tours. 

“This beautiful mural that Gustavo did as part of the Mural Central project was erased and is no longer there, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s infuriating,” Becker says. “It’s also just so hard because this is the Arts District. This is an area that we have been trying to manifest visual representation of the hundreds of artists that work in that area, and the fact that that can be gone in a couple hours is so sad.”

A man hold up a large piece of paper with plans for a mural on it
Gustavo Lira with the plans for the mural outside his studio at the Solar Arts building. “In one hour, they covered a mural that took us months,” Lira says.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Becker says the removal of murals, however, is not uncommon.

“It’s kind of an ignorant move, and it’s not very community-based,” Becker says. “I think that there are a lot of property owners who understand the connection the community has with their sites and their buildings, and they work to make sure that their murals reflect the community and the community’s values. But there are a lot of people who own buildings and a lot of people who aren’t as plugged into the community on an intimate level who just repaint a wall, and don’t think about it.”

Becker says that there should have been communication with the artist before removing the mural. 

“What makes this so frustrating is that there was no communication. There was no indication that this was happening,” Becker says. The mural wasn’t “specific even to a restaurant. It was a very multifaceted mural that could have been at home in many situations no matter what tenant went into that building.” 

Becker is uncertain if there were any protections provided by the mural project contracts with artists. She says the chamber was responsible for contracts. Neither the chamber nor Great Streets has responded to requests for comment.

Back at the former site of his mural, Lira wonders what will happen with the wall.

“I’m not looking for confrontation or anything or restitution,” he says. “After all, it’s the owner’s building.”

a man looks at a stack of paintings
Gustavo Lira in his art studio at the Solar Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis with a painting that will be on view for Art-A-Whirl 2024 from May 17-19.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

He says the erasure of the mural must be a learning moment, for artists and arts organizations as well as for building owners and businesses. He says when a work of public art is created, it belongs to the whole community.

“As soon as you put your art there, people take ownership of the art, because people need art. We need businesses — yes — but  we need art, too,” Lira says. ”I don’t want this happening to any other artists or any public part at all.”

Lira has several murals still on view around the Twin Cities, including the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, the Shoreview Public Library and the “Mosaic of the Americas” mural on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Lira will also be hosting an open studio for Art-A-Whirl May 17-19 at the Solar Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.