Locals cry foul as downtown mural covered by paint

·5 min read

Jul. 30—Since November 2020, a building on the corner of Downing and Muskogee in downtown has featured a mural by indigenous artist Yatika Starr Fields. But that piece was painted over last week, drawing immediate public notice.

The response has been enormous, with hundreds taking to Facebook to voice different opinions, thoughts and perspectives. Most who weighed in opposed the building's new look.

One post from Candessa Tehee, a Cherokee Nation tribal councilor, drew a great deal of online traction. Tehee had a hand in bringing the work to Tahlequah.

"I know the artist, Yatika Starr Fields," said Tehee. "He is Osage, Creek and Cherokee. I've know Yatika for years. He's a nationally renowned artist."

Field's resume includes exhibitions and murals across the United States and western Europe. Tehee described the mural Yatika painted in Tahlequah.

"So the pot he chose to represent is an effigy pot — ancient either Caddo or Wichita. He chose a view from Sparrowhawk because that was significant for the Osage people before Indian Territory and the State of Oklahoma," said Tehee.

Fields said this Mississippian pot was from a project called STTLMNT, and was originally supposed to be painted in England. Due to the pandemic, he instead painted five pots in areas with Mississippian culture in the United States.

"[The mural] is meant to question you, and you question it," said Fields.

According to Tehee, Yatika asked her to help find a spot for the mural. He reportedly did not want to really publicize the work.

"He wanted it to feel like it appeared overnight," said Tehee. "I got him in touch with the previous building owner and they had verbal agreement. He always knew it, and I knew, that [the building] could sell."

Tehee said the hope was that the new owners would keep the piece. At two years old, she said, the mural was still vibrant.

"When it sold and was suddenly painted, it was shocking," said Tehee.

Yet Tehee said said she understands the "other side of the coin." She said the building owners have the right to do as they see fit with their property.

"But I do think they have a civic duty to the community. Yatika's name is on the mural," said Tehee. "It would not have been hard to give Yatika notice. It's that lack of civic responsibility and engagement that shows they care more about the dollars in the community than the feeling of the community."

Many locals agreed, including Fields.

"I'm disappointed that no one was in communication whatsoever," said Fields.

While the event was "unfortunate," Fields hopes this event sparks a conversation about respecting public art and better understanding it. He said he realizes that murals can be temporary, but usually there is communication before they are removed.

"I'm glad this art had the time it did in Tahlequah," said Fields.

Fields called town "special" and said he grew up on Downing, just down the street from where the mural was painted. He said he will be painting another mural in Tahlequah — in a "safe place."

"I am amazed and happy with the outreach," said Fields.

There are other opinions on the matter. Local Realtor Steven Wright said he speaks from the perspective of a mural owner himself.

"While I am sad to see the artwork go, I am happy to see something happening with a blighted vacant building in one of Tahlequah's most important intersections," said Wright. "It's disappointing to see the public negativity toward the new owners, who are investing in our town."

When the mural was first painted, Wright said, he questioned why it was being put in a location where it had such a high probability of being destroyed.

"The building was vacant, needed remodel or teardown, and was listed for sale. This almost guaranteed it wouldn't last," said Wright. "When we painted the Bigfoot mural on the Spring Street Hideaway in 2018, we fully understood it would only last as long as we owned it. If we ever sell, it will be up to the new owner if they keep it or not."

Julio Solares identified himself as an owner of the dispensary that will be housed in the downtown building. He said he was in charge of its remodel.

"I'd been working on the inside and just jumped over to the outside of the building," said Solares.

Solaris admitted he didn't quite understand the culture and history behind the mural. He said he wanted to apologize to community.

"We're not trying to be disrespectful. We're trying to be part of the community," said Solares. "We don't benefit by tearing down the community."

Solares said he lives part-time in Tahlequah and part-time in Miami, Florida. He said he isn't on social media and wasn't aware of the response to the repaint until he overhead some locals talking about it in a coffee shop.

"I have in mind to make it right to show the community that we are not here to take away from their heritage, culture or land," said Solares. "We're going to make a couple changes and hopefully the community embraces those changes."

Solares said he plans to reach out to the artist. He did get in touch with Tehee after she initially spoke to the Tahlequah Daily Press. Tehee then expanded upon her earlier comments.

"I think painting it over was getting off on the wrong foot, but I'm very glad they have taken notice of public response and have offered apologies and reached out to the artist," said Tehee.

Solares named Madan Bhandari as his business partner, whom Cherokee County court reports show was deeded the property in 2021.

"Paint was so [faded] so we are trying to paint same kind like before and same [artist] who will paint again and make it good," said Bhandari. "I think he already talk to [artist] to repaint again."