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Vandalism or art? Property owner, Arts Council defend Fountain Square mural after city calls for removal

Vandalism or art?

City inspectors called for a Fountain Square bar owner to remove "spray-painted graffiti writing" from the side of his building.

UPDATE: City officials revoked their removal demand following the broadcast of this report. The Department of Business and Neighborhood Services determined the mural was “not out of compliance” because the property owner “allowed and authorized it,” a spokesperson said Thursday afternoon in a phone call to News 8.

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Public art supporters defended an outdoor mural on the side of a Fountain Square bar after city inspectors called for the removal of the “spray-painted graffiti writing.” 

Officials inspected the Dugout Bar on Virginia Avenue after receiving a graffiti complaint from an unknown source, according to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business and Neighborhood Services (BNS).

The mural on the building’s brick wall was painted in July by New York-based artist Al Diaz and his Indianapolis collaborator, an artist known as “matthewaaron.”

The spray-painted, shaded white letters read: “SAMO©… AS A WELL KNOWN BRAND IN EVERY TOWN ACROSS THE LAND.”

Diaz began spray-painting the word “SAMO” — a shortened play on the phrase “same old” — as a teenager in the 1970s. He and classmate Jean-Michel Basquiat developed the graffiti tag as a private joke and used it to parodize consumer culture, he told News 8.

SAMO© graffiti has appeared in hundreds of indoor and outdoor venues in New York, as well as galleries and street art displays nationwide.

The Fountain Square mural was spray-painted with the blessing of Nick Baxter, the owner of the Dugout Bar.

“[Al Diaz and matthewaaron] approached me and I agreed to let them put it on the building,” Baxter told News 8.

He appreciated the individuality of their previous work, he added, and felt their graffiti art matched the “approachable” vibe of the neighborhood bar.

“With the rise of property values, there has been… a view from a lot of the artists that they’ve been kind of pushed out of Fletcher Place and Fountain Square,” Baxter said. “But there are still a lot of artist-friendly businesses up and down Virginia Avenue.”

He was confronted in mid-August by a city inspector and told to remove “the graffiti” within 30 days. Baxter said he planned to “do whatever the city wants to stay in compliance.”

“I just want to make sure the city understands this is basically just these two gentlemen’s artwork,” he told News 8. ” I think it looks fine. I don’t know what it’s bothering or who it’s bothering.”

A city inspector will re-inspect the Dugout Bar “to make sure [the graffiti] is removed,” said Dimitri Kyser, a BNS spokesperson.

“The graffiti says, ‘SAMO,’ a tag referring to a traveling graffiti artist,” he said Wednesday in an email to News 8. “This is located on the south side of the building facing Stevens Street. Instead of writing a violation, our inspector spoke with the business owner to inform them of the complaint.”

When asked if the owner was required to remove the entire mural or merely the word “SAMO,” Kyser confirmed there was “no violation for a mural” and “only the graffiti… has been requested to be removed.”

Shannon Linker, vice president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, urged the city to rethink its removal demand and called upon local officials to support public art as a facet of Indianapolis culture.

“The mural is graffiti art,” she said. “Graffiti has evolved over the years from signage to artwork. That ‘SAMO’ tag is seen on paintings in museums.”