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  1. Opinion

Like tattoos of exes, historical statues will only disappoint

Stephanie Hayes | It's time to think twice before putting up a bust in the town square.

A few ideas are universally hazardous.

Principal among them is getting a tattoo of someone else’s name or face, no matter how in love you are. The court will now direct you to an exhibit of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder.

Another troublesome idea is naming a baby after a celebrity. I say this with regret to parents who settled on the name Lori Loughlin. Better to name children something neutral, such as Burlap or Potato.

In that vein, public statues of historical figures are also precarious. I’m not talking about the artistic merit of sculpture that challenges thought, but rather the baggage that can accompany any supposed idol. Maybe erecting a figure in a town square is a recipe for failure.

“So, you’re saying no one should get to be a statue?” my husband fairly inquired as I worked through this theory.

“No,” I said. “People should just prepare to be disappointed in statues.”

Humans have an obvious yearning to make large reproductions of other humans. Ancient statues were rooted in religion, and later were portraiture for the wealthy and powerful. But wrapped up in a nebulous cloak of honor and placed on public lands, statues often backfire. Looking at you, Saddam Hussein, Joseph Stalin, King George III. Looking at you, all the appendages on Greek sculptures.

Monuments rooted in the past can be painful in the present. They offer a vision of history dependent on a filter. For starters, no one’s jawline is that sharp. Also, people are 100 percent more complicated than their bronze doppelgangers.

Despite his navigational skill, Christopher Columbus was a wicked man who enslaved and killed natives, according to many historical accounts. Protesters in 2020 are making that point by tagging and toppling statues of him all over the country, including the one graffitied in Tampa.

Symbols of the Confederacy, slavery and even Mount Rushmore are under scrutiny more than ever. In Rochester, N.Y., someone tore down a sculpture of abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the anniversary of his speech asking, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

Tampa Bay has its own share of Confederate markers, including a monument moved from the old Hillsborough courthouse to a family cemetery in 2018 and another removed in Plant City this year. Other examples run across Florida and the whole of the South.

Plenty of diverse, noted figures are sculpted around here, too, from football legend Lee Roy Selmon to La Gaceta newspaper publisher Roland Manteiga, reading his paper against the walls of Ybor City.

The Lee Roy Selmon statue in downtown Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Tampa’s Riverwalk contains lovely busts of everyone from suffragette Eleanor McWilliams Chamberlain to nurse Clara C. Frye, who treated people of all races and incomes.

The artist Steve Dickey installs his bronze statue of Clara Frye along Tampa's Riverwalk [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Sometimes, we just get weird with it. A Tampa mobile home park has a sculpture of Jose Gaspar, a fictional pirate. I am waiting to find out how he is wrapped up in the college admissions scandal.

To be safe, I propose a moratorium on busts and effigies dedicated to historic figures for... a while, just as I suggest Gary wait to get “Tanya Forever” on his pectoral.

If not, governments must be willing to cycle those statues out if their time comes. Tattoos and monuments can be removed, but there’s always some scarring left behind.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes