Wipe out? Surfing Madonna street art causes controversy

The surfing Madonna appeared just before Easter weekend and has been stirring a soulful debate in a Southern California beach town ever since.

The striking mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe riding a wave was affixed to a wall under a train bridge in Encinitas, Calif., by artists disguised as construction workers in April. It technically is graffiti that should be removed under the law.

But the surfing Madonna's beauty is drawing a following, and even city officials who say she must go acknowledge they, too, have been taken by her. They have spent thousands to hire an art conservation agency to find the best way to remove her without causing damage.

The 10-by-10-foot rock and glass mosaic poses an interesting dilemma over whether a city should spend lots of money to get rid of artwork that is illegal but well done and actually beautifies a place.

The mysterious artist of the Surfing Madonna has even stepped forward to help the city remove the creation. Assistant City Manager Richard Phillips said Thursday the city attorney was in talks with the attorney for Mark Patterson about the penalty for putting up the unauthorized piece.

Deciding what is graffiti is a growing debate worldwide with guerrilla artists gaining respect in established art circles. A number of museums have brought the street art indoors for prestigious exhibits in recent years, while pieces of illegal art snatched up by dealers have been fetching hefty sums.

A Los Angeles show billed as the first major museum exhibit of street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Little Tokyo sparked a similar debate last month when unauthorized etchings started showing up on buildings in the neighborhood. The exhibit included Chaz Bojorquez's stark, black-and-white "Senor Suerte" drawings, once a fixture on the concrete-lined waterways of Los Angeles, and the colorful "Howard the Duck" murals Lee Quinones covered New York City with in the 1970s.

Inside a piercing blue wave, Our Lady of Guadalupe balances on a white surf board decorated with the angelic face of Juan Diego, the indigenous boy who is said to have seen the Virgin on a Mexican hillside in 1531. Her vibrant green robe curls up around her as if blowing in the sea breeze as she surfs with her iconic serene face. Down one side are the words: "Save the Ocean."

The mosaic's creator Patterson contacted city officials through his lawyer late Wednesday after the Los Angeles-based Sculpture Conservation Studio ran tests and determined it would be nearly impossible to remove because the mosaic had been bolted into a support structure under a train bridge.

In a letter to the city, Patterson's attorney, Anton Gerschler, said Patterson put up the piece to send a message about saving the ocean and he intended it to be a gift to the community.

Thousands of people have come to see the artwork. Some have brought flowers and lit votive candles on the sidewalk under her.

Gerschler pointed out that Sculpture Conservation Studio experts say the piece is beautiful and in the perfect spot. Gerschler suggested the artwork could be covered until it could be officially made public art.

"It spoke to me as a perfect frame," Patterson said of the bridge in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It was a train overpass, so sort of an industrial spot that really no one cared about at all, and to put something incredibly beautiful there, for me, seemed -- perfect."

Patterson envisioned the mosaic in 2005, when he was working full time in the software industry.

"I ignored it," he told the Union-Tribune. "Then it pops up again very strongly in 2009, and I drew a fairly complete rendition of the surfing Madonna, with the save the ocean. And the save the ocean was always the base of the concept that was being visualized in my head."

Deputy Mayor Jerome Stocks said there is no question it must go since making an exception to the law would set a dangerous precedent. But he is concerned that it won't be that easy to remove it.

He said the mosaic was mounted onto a support structure that was retrofitted for earthquakes.

"We may have to have an engineer look at that to determine if it has caused damage to the seismic integrity of the bridge support," he said. "There are still a lot of questions about this and we don't know the answers yet."

Encinitas Mayor James Bond said leaving the mosaic alone would put city officials in the position of deciding the taste of Encinitas, which has about 63,000 residents. He added the mosaic's religious connotations also have drawn complaints.

Some say the artwork blurs the line between church and state; others consider it sacrilegious to have Mexico's patron saint pictured surfing.

"We can't just go around saying, 'Well, when someone slaps up something nice, we like it and it can stay.' Or, 'Oh, we don't like it, so we've got to take it down,'" Bond said. "We can't do that with art because people always love and hate the same piece of art. So it's a slippery slope."

It also could quickly get out of control in a town like Encinitas that is full of artists, he saind expects moving the mosaic will be costly, but local businesses are raising money to cover the city's expenses. And several people have offered to buy the artwork.

Although it's graffiti, the City Council wants the mosaic to be relocated to a place where the public can continue to view it.

City workers, meanwhile, have been busy cleaning up other unauthorized art -- including a painting of a monster's face that turned up under train tracks in a separate part of town shortly after the surfing Madonna. That painting was whitewashed in 24 hours with not a word of protest.