TAMPA — The city’s newest public art project appeared over the weekend outside Tampa Police Department headquarters after organizers worked for weeks to get approval from the city for a “Back the Blue” pro-police mural.
The city didn’t approve it, but organizers armed with paint and orange cones created the mural anyway.
Kristen Krutz, one of the organizers, helped spearhead the project along with others from Back the Blue Florida, an online community with more than 5,000 members. She said the mural is meant to show law enforcement personnel that they have support.
“They’re being defunded and things that they need and require to do their job are not going to be provided anymore,” said Krutz, 36. “Obviously, that would make anybody feel unappreciated, unwanted, and that’s the opposite of what we wanted them to see with the mural on the street.”
At Tampa City Council meetings, people have called on officials to defund the Tampa Police Department, but Mayor Jane Castor has said she’s not on board with the idea.
Krutz and about 40 other people painted the mural Saturday evening in the middle of East Madison Street. The mural spans the block and is painted with the black, white and blue colors of the pro-police “thin blue line” flag.
Without obtaining a permit, Krutz said, they used orange cones and their personal vehicles to block the road while they worked.
“The reason why we decided to proceed without a permit is because Black Lives Matter has murals all over the city that say Black Lives Matter, and they were not permitted,” Krutz said.
Krutz said she filed a records request with the city for permits issued for Black Lives Matter murals and was told none were issued. City of Tampa spokesperson Ashley Bauman said the murals were approved as part of the city’s Art on the Block day.
Bauman said the Back the Blue mural was in the process of approval. In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times Monday, Mayor Castor — who has served as Tampa police chief — said any tribute to honor law enforcement’s service is welcome.
“It’s unfortunate they didn’t see the permitting process through so that our community could participate in showing their appreciation for the brave men and women that service our residents every day,” Castor said.
The mural has been criticized on social media as ugly and difficult to read. Some posts suggested “accidentally” spilling paint over it. The headline in alternative weekly Creative Loafing: “Everyone’s roasting Tampa’s hilariously bad ‘Bock The Blub’ street mural.”
Cam Parker, an artist from east Tampa, said he felt embarrassed as a resident of the city to see posts about the mural Sunday night. In July, Parker helped create a rainbow fist mural in Tampa Heights on North Franklin Street and West Henderson Avenue, meant to support Black Lives Matter and promote LGBTQ pride. He also created the “A” in St. Petersburg’s Black Lives Matter mural.
Parker said he can understand supporting law enforcement, but he feels the Back the Blue mural is a retaliation against the Black Lives Matter movement and its murals. Parker said it feels like those who painted the mural are pushing back against people who are just asking not to be killed.
“We’re not having fun talking about Black Lives Matter,” Parker said. “I am now staunchly and like, unrelentingly using my voice to do what I can to bring awareness and to let people know it’s not a fad, it’s not a trend, it’s not anything that is going away ever.”
Krutz’s husband designed the Back the Blue mural. She said said she expects it to be vandalized, even though local Black Lives Matter murals have remained untouched so far. Anyone who would do this shows disdain for First Amendment rights, she said.
“There’s no doubt if they go out there and deface this mural that somebody is going to deface theirs,” Krutz said. “That’s what irritates me. And it’s not going to be me. But it’s going to happen.”
Krutz said she emailed Castor over several days starting July 16 about getting approval for the Back the Blue mural. Krutz suggested two possible slogans: “Blue Lives Matter,” and, “Back the Blue,” along with two possible locations. Krutz was referred to city staff and was sent a guide with steps on painting an intersection in Tampa.
A GoFundMe fundraiser brought in a little more than $1,000 for the mural and Krutz said she sent a petition with more than 1,000 signatures to city officials. Krutz was told the proposal needs to be brought to the City Council for approval.
Jeffrey Stull, an attorney who represents the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, sent a letter Friday to Castor, saying the police union supported the project and asking her to direct city staff to move quickly to grant Krutz permission.
Krutz said she spoke the same day with Marley Wilkes, Tampa’s director of the office of governmental affairs and strategic initiatives, and was told the city would let her know if she was granted permission.
The mural is only of its kind in the United States painted on a street, Krutz said. A group in New York City called for a “Blue Lives Matter” mural in July but it hasn’t materialized. In Tulsa, after a pro-police group asked for its own mural, the city decided to remove a Black Lives Matter mural rather than let one with a pro-police message stand.
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