The subjectivity of art can make it rife with controversy. A local artist found himself at the center of one this week.
Jabari Reed, known as iBoms, was invited to participate in the Shine Mural Festival’s Corner Canvas project, which wraps artwork over traffic signal boxes throughout St. Petersburg. Originally, the box was going to be in downtown St. Petersburg. But because Reed’s images contain text, they weren’t compliant with Department of Transportation rules in that location.
Reed’s new box was in Campbell Park across from John Hopkins Middle School on 16th Street S, where boxes by other artists line the street. The box was wrapped with Reed’s artwork on Oct. 27.
By that evening, a protest had erupted on social media, started by a user named Toya Jordan.
"How in the HELL did the City of St. Petersburg thought this was okay.... there are soooooo many subliminal, disgusting and racial pieces in my opinion about our Southside neighborhoods!!!! Wake up our people, they could not have even attempted this anywhere else PERIOD!! Right across from John Hopkins Middle where our children will see this B.S.
I'm furious!!! I'm opening to what they assumed their message was suppose to be.
###please share to have this removed!!!"
By the next morning, the art was gone from the box.
The box had been wrapped in four panels, each featuring Reed’s cast of characters in his cartoonish style wearing the white minstrel gloves drawn in cartoons from the Jim Crow era.
In one, a tattooed, chain-wearing, broccoli-headed man drives a drop top with a carrot riding shotgun. The words “Human Discretion Advised” and “Vegi” appear at the bottom.
In another, a man with a clear paper bag for a head lounges with a drink. The word “smiles” is repeated. In another, a girl with a backpack stuffed with GMO chips, corn syrup drink and an MSG candy bar stands in front of a convenience store where a sign reads “EBT Acct.” And in the final piece, a kid with a bomb for a head sits dejectedly in the baby seat of a shopping cart surrounded by food products with labels that read “Xan in a Can” and “Hero-ine.”
Reed, 20, works as a press distribution staffer at the Tampa Bay Times plant. He has lived in Childs Park most of his life and draws the work deliberately to explore racism and discrimination. Images of black history layered with symbolism recall his own experience as a young black man.
The art is often ironic and Reed knows it can be difficult to unpack.
“I know some of this is on my end, too,” he said. “I wouldn’t even expect an adult to understand the pieces without the context.”
RELATED: St. Petersburg artist Jabari Reed youngest to be featured on Rays poster
Corner Canvas is not a city project. It’s funded by a private donor, Bank OZK, and is part of the Shine Mural Festival produced by the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. Chad Mize, curator of Corner Canvas, works with the City of St. Petersburg to identify which boxes can be used. The artwork is approved by cultural affairs director Wayne Atherholt.
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“He’s a talented, young emerging artist,” Atherholt said of Reed in an e-mail. “(The piece) contained powerful images. And clearly it struck a chord.”
Jordan’s Facebook thread exploded with comments. An Instagram follower alerted Reed to the post and he joined in, identifying himself as the artist and asking people to look at his page for an explanation of the works. Gina Driscoll, City Council member for Campbell Park’s district, was tagged in the thread. So was John Collins, executive director of the Arts Alliance. And Mize, who represents Reed in his gallery, was informed.
Neither Jordan nor the Pinellas County School District replied to the Times’ request for comment.
Driscoll urged Collins and Mize to remove the work in an e-mail. They agreed it should be removed immediately. Driscoll said she could see that Reed had talent, but didn’t think it was an appropriate piece to have so close to a school.
Options for a replacement include artwork from John Hopkins students. Different works by Reed might go to another location.
“When I originally picked him, I thought it was important to represent his community,” Mize said. “I feel like he does have a lot to say and he has been my top-selling artist. People are responsive to his work. They like that it has depth.”
But he wants people to know festival organizers would never intentionally put out offensive artwork. He wants Shine to extend to all areas of St. Petersburg.
Collins said the work was misinterpreted, but he had to make a decision based on the way the community felt. Still, at the end of the day, he said, a whole community was talking about art.
Monday night, Reed posted videos on his Facebook page reacting to the controversy and explaining the work. The one with the drug references is titled Innocent Guilt. It comes from his own experience of buying a cheap item when shopping to avoid being racially profiled for stealing. He conceived of a store in which all the products were things black children are susceptible to. In the store, they could find an item — in this case, “Kelp Drink” — that would shield them from those influences.
Reed said he now agrees it shouldn’t have been near a school, but he was attempting to create a dialogue.
It raises an interesting question. Should artists always play it safe in public spaces where it’s difficult to include a narrative, or is it important to keep art thought provoking?
After Reed defended his work on social media, some people changed their opinion.
Lynette Davis of Coquina Key lived in Childs Park in high school. She was offended when she saw the images on the Facebook post. But she went to Reed’s page and liked what she saw. She reached out and apologized to him.
“I could completely understand what he’s inspired by and what he sees,” she said. “And what kind of consciousness he’s trying to awaken in other people.”
Davis reached out to community leaders and shared Reed’s story. Soon, the relatively unknown artist was experiencing a wave of support. There is talk of a solo exhibition at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. On Wednesday, a local collector bought one of the original paintings that was on the box, O% Juice.
“Before any of this happened, I was just an artist," Reed said. “I didn’t see myself as an activist. Now I see that it does have a lot of power when people start to see it. So that’s something that I have to think about. Am I going to dilute my message because it makes some people uncomfortable, or am I going to keep it the way it was?”