Is this a colorful, innocent mural - or something else? (Photo by Kevin McCarthy)
Art, it is safe to say, is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to works of public art, in particular, there are as many opinions and interpretations of their merits as there are sets of eyeballs that land upon them. Is Arthur Ashe serving knowledge on Monument Avenue or is he beating back children who are sinking in quicksand? Does the metal head of a police officer jutting out of police headquarters on Grace Street suggest the simultaneous strength and humanity of our officers, or is Big Brother watching you? Always watching you ...
And is a young woman feeding an apple to a purple beaver on the side of a sex-toy shop an innocent, whimsical forest scene or is it something else?
The latest brouhaha started in May when two tattoo artists painted a mural on the side of Taboo, an adult store on Midlothian Turnpike. Neighbors started taking notice of the bright and cheerful motif, which began to seem a little too bright and cheerful. The young woman lies on her stomach, toes in the air feeding a red apple to a purple beaver on a tree stump. Some worried — and called WTVR CBS 6 to publicly wonder — if the fantastical scene would attract unsuspecting children, who might mistake the store for a children’s bookstore and wander in for a look. You know, all those unattended, unsupervised 10-year-olds who are wandering Midlothian Turnpike in search of a good book?
Others worried the complete opposite — that the seductive pose of the young woman would entice perverts, deviants and pedophiles (because they might actually be wandering Midlothian Turnpike). Let’s settle it right now: Unless she was modeled off of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, this is not a little girl. She has bright red lipstick, giant hoop earrings and a curvy figure. But I get that it’s ambiguous and creepy, much like those bride and groom Precious Moments figurines.
What’s especially funny to me is that everyone seems hung up on the depiction of this young woman and no one is talking about the elephant in the room, and in this case the elephant in the room is the beaver on the wall.
Put a beaver on the side of a children’s hospital or bookstore and you’ve got a lovable woodland creature. Put a beaver on the side of a sex-toy shop and you’ve got a seventh-grade punchline. Context matters.
Also interesting is that the shop’s owner has been quoted as saying she didn’t want anything overtly sexual on the wall. Now, it may not be an orgy, but a shapely young woman offering a red, ripe apple — the forbidden fruit itself — to her beaver hardly seems veiled. The name of the work itself might be a tip-off: FeedUrBeaver.
Seriously, I don’t care if it stays. Both arguments about attracting kids or attracting pedophiles are ludicrous. The image is not overtly offensive in any way. So what if the underlying message is a little randy (if juvenile)? But I might care very much if it is forced to come down and here’s why: We have a talented cadre of muralists in town who have done some very interesting and skillful work all over Richmond. Every mural might not please every aesthetic taste, but they have used their enormous canvases quite responsibly.
One of the Taboo artists joked on his Facebook page about the dust-up over the mural, saying there’s “no such thing as bad publicity.” Maybe not for a tattoo artist with nothing to lose and everything to gain by slapping a beaver up on the wall of a sex-toy shop, but it could be very bad indeed for our local muralists who have been painting the town thoughtfully for years. I heard from a local muralist with work all over town that he’s concerned politicians will start getting involved with the Taboo mural and then it’s goodbye creative freedom and autonomy, hello committees, panels and pre-approval processes. That would push some of these artists to fold up their scaffolding.
That would be a shame. For the sake of our real muralists and the inspiring work we want them to continue doing let’s let this one slide, shall we? To paraphrase June Cleaver, let’s not be too hard on the beaver.