Artist Plans to Sue Property Owner Who Painted Over Chicano Mural in San Jose’s East Side

Jose Mesa Velasquez donated $25,000 in time and talent to paint “Mural de la Raza.”

The 15-by-85-foot tribute to Chicano culture on the old Payless ShoeSource building at Story and King roads took two months of 15-hour days and 50 youth volunteers to complete in the summer of 1985.

It took only an hour or so to erase.

By the time Velasquez heard about the Aug. 29 pre-dawn cover-up, the detailed display of folk legends and civil rights leaders had been obscured for days by a thick layer of tan paint. However, because state and federal law requires landlords to notify muralists before altering or removing their handiwork, the 69-year-old Oakland artist says he plans to take the offending property owner to court.

“It was a shock for us,” his wife, Juanita Velasquez told San Jose Inside in a phone call. “That was our initial reaction. We had no idea this was happening.”

On Sunday, Velasquez and his wife drove from the East Bay to San Jose to visit the site of his beige-washed handiwork, which had since been tagged with lime-green scrawl that read, “Down 4 My Raza.” About 100 artists and community members joined the family in solidarity. Though saddened by the loss, the artist says he was touched to see how much his work meant to folks who grew up in San Jose’s largely Latino East Side.

Folks like Jose Valle, who works for the local nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug. When he heard about a year ago that Payless would close its East Side store after filing for bankruptcy, Valle and other activists asked Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco’s office to help them contact the property owner and figure out how to preserve the mural.

But Carrasco’s chief of staff, Frances Herbert, says her office had no luck. CBRE, the property management company, didn’t relay their message to then-owner 2048 Partners LLC—the company that reportedly painted over the mural—or its manager Peter Aljouny. Months passed with no news, say residents advocating for the mural’s preservation.

Once the mural was painted over last week, the community mourned and then sprang into action. Carrasco’s staff resumed efforts to track down the people behind A7 Story LLC, the building’s new owner. Artists and residents helped find Velasquez after watching and reading news reports about the mural’s erasure. And city officials began talking about ways to protect San Jose’s surviving cultural markers, which in East Side often sprang up organically in places overlooked by nonprofit grant-givers and other institutional funders of public art.

Enedina Cardenas, a Cupertino-based attorney who grew up admiring “Mural de la Raza,” says San Jose’s elected leaders should do more to preserve the city’s cultural landmarks—particularly in today’s political climate. “It concerns me that these things are going away when there’s an administration in the White House that’s actively trying to erase years of our history here,” she says.

In a letter to city officials that San Jose Inside published as an op-ed, Cardenas talks about the pride she felt as a child and the daughter of immigrants in seeing her heritage represented throughout the city.

“Public art has a way of developing and fostering a sense of community,” she wrote in the Sept. 3 note to Carrasco. “Artists depict their observations of the times and memorialize pivotal moments in history. Public art, such as artist Jose Mesa Velasquez’s piece, acknowledged a group. It validated my community. Growing up, I don’t recall having books available to read about Mexican-American culture in elementary school. It was important to see reminders of my culture and heritage, such as this mural. I didn’t realize what an impact this art had on me until I learned what happened earlier this week.”

Cardenas questions why the city, with all its resources and clout, couldn’t save the mural, considering the story it told about East Side through indigenous and religious iconography and the faces of multi-cultural historic figures such as Cesar Chavez, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and President John F. Kennedy.

“Mr. Velasquez and the other muralists will probably have their day in court,” she writes in the stern but heartfelt missive. “Damages may be awarded. And hopefully, a new mural can be resurrected to replace the one lost. But it is clear that as a community, we need to take preemptive measures to preserve the remaining art in San Jose, to respect the artists’ work and point of view [and] to ensure this does not happen again, especially when this loss was preventable in a swift legal process.”

“Mural de la Raza” may be gone, Cardenas concludes, but all is not lost.

“I am hopeful for one thing,” she says. “The events that took place sparked an outrage in the community, outrage that I hope will lead to action. Art has a way of bringing people together and fostering dialogue. Let’s use this momentum to foster, grow, and preserve the strong heritage our local artists have worked to create.”

Valle, who founded a club called Souleros Ball to promote cultural wayfinders like “Mural de la Raza,” agrees that it’s important to look forward and to amplify the stories that muralists like Velasquez sought to convey. The De-Bug organizer plans to team up with other community groups to host a Sept. 16 gathering at the “Mural de la Raza” site to raise money for a new work of art to replace the one that was lost.

“We want to turn this into a positive thing and have a celebration with food and music,” Valle says. “Hopefully, it can also be a way to show that we mean business, that this isn’t something we’re just going to let go.”

Some of the ESSJ kids who helped Jose Mesa V. paint "Mural de la Raza" 33 years ago.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

27 Comments

  1. > However, because state and federal law requires landlords to notify muralists before altering or removing their handiwork,

    WOW! The government has laws for EVERYTHING!!!

    Does graffitti qualify as “artist’s handiwork”? Do taggers have to be notified by landlords before their “murals” are removed?

    • Excellent Mural Jose.
      The erasure of history is problematic and unfortunate. However, we should not allow political correctness to erase our local history in our communities. We can look to the past, acknowledge and learn from mistakes, and celebrate achievements at the same time. Such sentiments—that removing or modifying public murals somehow erases history—misrepresent not only what local history is, but also what murals are supposed to do. Try to understand that the mural’s very essence is not about recording local history in the first place: they’re designed to shape our perceptions of local history in very particular ways and for very particular purposes, ranging from people’s experiences in living in a community, to glorifying a political leader or set of ideologies, to providing future generations examples to emulate. Rather than recording history, we should think of murals as themselves being part of history—and frequently a very problematic and distorted part of history, at that.

      In my opinion, what many believe murals to be are actually the function of museums, the public institutions more properly geared towards preserving and teaching history through the context and broader narrative they are able to provide in that space. But refusing to let this image stand in a prominent public place in the form of a mural, without interpretation or context, is not eradicating local history. Rather, it’s engaging with it. So be it, engage community, start another project and move on. Sponsors are need, so corporate executives step up to the plate and pitch in… for Jose needs your help. Projects like this unites the community.

      • PS: “Murals CAN BE a cost effective program in San Jose. It can save a lot of business owners money — particularly small business owners. It is something that has really raised the awareness of graffiti art and murals around the city, and it allows young people to really see avenues for their creativity. Murals are a beautiful contribution for the community; clean building, nice artwork, and everybody’s happy.

        To most artists, these mural projects are very close to an artist heart,” It represents what they live by and I think every community needs more of murals versus graffitti and more empathy, love, and of course passion, because without a;; this you can’t do anything else.

  2. How can the artist sue? What is the claim? What are the damages? How does the artist have a property interest in the wall owned by someone else? Was there some contract? The landlord has the resources and has to litigate (they can’t set the precedent that other people own the sides of their buildings).

    I 100% support this artist and think it’s beyond unfortunate that this happened. I really hope that he’s not being taken for a ride by a unscrupulous lawyer who will take a retainer then lose + end up having to pay the landlord’s attorney fees.

    The erasure of history is problematic and unfortunate. The solution is not the civil legal system, but civil society. The people, united, need to bring back a mural that honors the tradition celebrated.

    That’s where this has to go – not lawsuits.

  3. If there is a public display of artistic or memorialized recognition of a particular ethnic group beliefs in honoring some past achievement or effort put forth by the ancestor of the group, then could the destruction of that work be called racist? Not wishing to take sides but rather seeking points of clarification – wouldn’t the destruction of confederate statutes fall into the same category?

  4. Bring back our chicano culture East San Jose….keep your bollywood crap away from the chicano neighborhoods

  5. I’m thinking about creating a GoFundMe page to buy a building in downtown San Jose and commission a mural.

    Ten feet by forty feet. Happy chicano’s engaged in happy chicano cultural activities. Wearing MAGA hats, Trump T-shirts, and riding in low-riders with Trump bumper stickers.

    Federal and state laws will protect my mural, right?

    If I sell the building, any future owner or landlord will have to get my permission to paint over or alter the mural, right?

    Art is wonderful. I love art.

    • Yes, people have all sorts of silly impractical ideas but get miffed when you tell them to pay for it themselves. Whether or not the mural has artistic merit is not the issue. The artist can’t buy his own building to tag so he’s invoking a possibly unconstitutional only-in-California law to preempt the owner’s property rights.

    • Folks need to do a little research. There is actually both California and federal laws that protect works of art: The California Art Protection Act (CAPA) and the federal Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA). With respect to art that is permanently affixed to a building, these laws only require that the owner of the building make a good faith effort to notify the artist and given them an opportunity to remove the artwork before it is destroyed. The law does not prevent a property owner from removing a mural or painting it over, absent a previously recorded agreement with the artist. It’s often infeasible to remove a mural, so ultimately the owner can get rid of it, as long as they follow the notification requirements.

      Courts have not extended the protections under VARA/CAPA to unauthorized street murals or graffiti painted without the owner’s permission.

      • “Courts have not extended the protections under VARA/CAPA to unauthorized street murals or graffiti painted without the owner’s permission.”

        I am curious. What constitutes an “authorized” street mural?

  6. When are the Italians in San Jose going to sue over the removal of that statue of Christopher Columbus?

  7. La Raza = The Race… If we are all equal, why is Hispanic supremacy not treated the same as White supremacy?

  8. two months and 25,000$ worth of labor? this guy sure has an inflated sense of self worth if this is what he believes that mural costs. i know a fair bit about what goes into projects like these and unless this dude really sucks, it should not have taken him that long nor cost him that much.

    i love mural art, but this Oakland artist is only going to make it harder for working muralists to get building owners to agree to let them paint on their walls in the future. Street art is transitory by nature and after 30 years the mural was look rough anyway.

    maybe, since the city seems to be taking a stance on this, they can offer up one of the many walls that are on city property and open it up to a new muralist. a new Mexican-american themed image that the city can maintain over the next 30 years, instead of a private citizen.

  9. Hmmm… I thought it was a pretty good mural on a dreary corner in San Jose. Now it’s a painted over gray wall that attracts no name paint can graffiti vandals. So I guess those folks posting negative comments and pissing and moaning about “Chicano art” will continue their pleasure in viewing the alternative vandalized wall. I’m sure you’re not residents of our community and it would seem your all nuts.

  10. Was not aware of this unnecessary and ill-suited law requiring property owners to notify of intentions to paint their own building. This law should be rescinded.

  11. While I respect property rights, the new owner seems to lack common sense.

    By painting over the mural, he building owner did nothing but provide a blank canvas for taggers, which he will have to keep on top of, to avoid being “tagged” with a charge of blight. It would have been much less painful for him to leave up the mural.

    And then he completely ignored federal and state law regarding murals. Hard to believe someone who buys commercial real estate does so without using a lawyer. Even if the mural could not have been removed, the new owner should have negotiated with the artist, before engendering so much ill will in the community.

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