Fort Worth officials may have not heard that old saying about looking a gift horse in the mouth. This is the crux of the recent conflict between local artist JD Moore and the city’s graffiti abatement program.
While painting a mural in Fort Worth last September, Moore says he was approached by a city representative and invited to join the program with a mural project.
In November, he says he accepted the proposal even though it was pro-bono and paid only for paint and materials because he was interested in contributing to the community and thought it would make a solid entry on his résumé.
“Personally, I agreed to do it for free because under the guise of volunteering or donating to the city, that's something I wanted to have on my résumé,” he says. “Essentially, you know, further down the line ... when I become a seasoned artist I want to have this merit of, you know, donating my services to the community.”
Moore signed the paperwork in November, and his plans were approved "by multiple officials," he says. He began work in December.
The project consisted of a series of murals across eight pillars on Fort Worth’s North Henderson Street bridge.
Because of the amount of work required, Moore says over the next few months he recruited his girlfriend, friends and even dozens of high school volunteers to help.
The contract he signed, he says, didn’t stipulate a deadline.
A few months into the project, Moore says Park and Recreation Department superintendent Michael Tovar raised objections to the art, saying he was concerned that people would think the city was “taking a side” in the issue of racism.
“He was not happy with the content. He did not like the fact that there was a majority amount of dark-skinned people,” Moore says.
Moore says Tovar requested he change one of the faces on the mural to depict a different race.
“He says, and I quote, ‘There sure are a lot of African Americans here,’” Moore says. “He says, ’We want to make sure that we can address a problem that might potentially arise, which is that we don't want people to think that the graffiti abatement program is racist or that we're picking sides.’”
Moore says Tovar pointed to one of the figures and said, “Let's turn this one Chinese.”
“And I had to interject,” Moore says. “I said I can't do that because that is a real person. I took this picture of this person, and I'm not going to make them look like a Chinese person. Or I'm not going to make up what a Chinese person looks like, 'cause that's not how I practice my art.”
Moore says that after he explained this to Tovar, Tovar replied, “I know that when the paint goes on wet, it's one color, it's a dark color. Maybe when it dries it'll turn lighter and we won't have to worry about this.”
Tovar didn’t return our request for comment but did speak to Fort Worth Weekly for an April 20 story.
“Anyone can walk by there without knowing who the artist was or what his intent was,” Tovar told the publication. “‘I see African Americans, so I’m going to make a complaint because there are no white people or Chinese people.’ Our concern was to cover ourselves.”
Soon after, Moore says, Tovar asked him to start wrapping up work on the murals. Moore says he was not given a completion date but was asked for a certain amount of progress by April.
“There wasn't anything in writing; this is all hearsay,” Moore says. “You know what I was told is that ‘By this date, by April 9th, we want to start a process of sealing these pillars, so we want to start getting it done, and if you're not done with what's left, you can still work on it. We want you to continue working on it, and then once those get done, then we'll move to seal those in, call those complete.’
“But the language of a deadline, I think, infers that I need it to have the entire thing done and because there is incomplete parts, that's why they made the decision to take me off.”
Moore says he completed a greater portion of the work, five out of the eight pillars, by April 9, but Tovar told him he was removing him from the project. And, he added, if Moore returned to the site of the mural he would be cited for trespassing.
“Did I mention the word ‘trespassing’?” Tovar told Fort Worth Weekly. “I don’t recall at this time.”
The mural is on public property.
Moore says he never was told why they needed a deadline or what the city’s urgency was to complete the project in a certain timeframe.
“I feel like I'm being left in the dark about … as to what is the priority to get it done by deadline because that was introduced to me, like, mid-project,” he says. “Four months into working on it, I was then told that there needs to, you know, be so much of it done by a certain time.”
Moore says he has a day job as a tattoo artist and was working on several paid commissions as he was working on the mural series. Had Fort Worth given him a deadline from the beginning, he might’ve not signed on to the project.
“It would have made a difference whether or not I would have agreed to do so much,” he says. “I don't know if the stipulations would have been made agreeable had there been a deadline.”
The murals required far more time than he would’ve accepted to take on within a short period of time.
“I’m not getting compensated directly for my time to create this work, and it’s important to know that this amount of work is unprecedented for this program to have this amount of work done by one person,” he says. “I agreed to donate my time, which did not include a deadline. Therefore, if there is a deadline, I reserve deadlines for paid work. Therefore, I need to be paid, and I have a rate.”
After Moore’s conversation with Tovar, in which he says he was told he was being kicked off the project, he posted a video on Instagram detailing his experience and showing the work he’d completed at that point. He says he thought the decision was "racially motivated."
"He does not like me because of who I am and what I represent, and he wanted to personally make sure I was not going to interrupt his plan to take away my vision and to take away what the art stands for," Moore says of Tovar.
Coordinators with the program soon reached out to other artists and offered them the remainder of the space that once belonged to Moore.
One artist who declined the offer was Choke, who says after she was contacted by the city, she watched Moore’s video and “started to connect the dots," and posted the email exchange with a Fort Worth coordinator online.
"We were currently working on a mural with an artist who was not able to finish the mural in the time frame needed," the email to Choke reads. "We are about 90% done with the mural but truly need someone to step in and complete the mural as soon as possible."
“Obviously I was already mad, but even more mad when I found out who they wanted me to finish the work for,” Choke says. “Completely pissed me off, so [Moore] and I got together to address the issue.”
Choke's response in the email says: "So what I'm reading is you have a mural that is 90% finished, but you have a deadline, but it's unpaid? But you need it done as soon as possible so you can move on to another project? But it's unpaid?"
The artist also questioned in her response why they didn't allow the artist to complete the work.
"I'm going to assume it's taken longer than expected to complete because that artist has a job and a family to tend to, and this mural project is probably HUGE," she wrote.
Other artists also showed their solidarity with Moore. On Saturday, a group of art scene figures came together in an event called Artists Call to Action to discuss ways for artists to protect themselves from situations like Moore's.
"During the last few days, we have been made aware we did not perform at our highest level in regards to the mural being painted on North Henderson," writes Karen Stuhmer, a supervisor at Fort Worth Parks and Community Services, in an email to the Observer. "After many hours of discussion with various organizational partners, we are exploring ways we can improve upon and formalize the Graffiti Abatement Program processes, particularly in how it relates to artists. Over the past 30 years, we have partnered with community volunteers to complete nearly 100 murals through our Graffiti Abatement Program. We are sure we can work with our partners to find a way to continue this program and make it even better.
"In regards to the Henderson Street Bridge mural project, Mr. Moore will be allowed to complete the mural as originally planned with no deadline and staff will continue to provide support. We apologize for any miscommunication surrounding this particular project and we look forward to working with Mr. Moore as he completes his work."
The Saturday event, Moore says, had a “really great turnout and included artists like UNO, another artist taken advantage of by GAP [the Graffiti Abatement Project].”
“What we are doing is organizing artists here in the metroplex to set new standards of practice for artists and people who want to employ us," Moore says, "essentially, so that we can avoid this problem and in any other type of way this can happen again so that we can avoid artists being taken advantage of."
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