"I Am Tacoma" mural vandalized by racist

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Photo by Lindsey Anderson
Photo by Lindsey Anderson

Tacoma was disheartened this week after news broke that the iconic "I Am Tacoma" mural was vandalized. The mural, which depicts four faces of children of different races together, was vandalized with black paint last week.

In the artist's own words
"They first painted over the black boy and then came back 4 days later with someone else and painted over the rest of the faces," artist Gerardo Pena said in a statement on Instagram.

According to Pena, the culprit has been identified as a man "known in the community for calling people racial slurs."

Security footage shows the man pulling up in front of the mural in a white SUV in broad daylight. He appears to be an older white man. In the video, he was joined by another older white man. Tacoma police have not yet released his identity.

Pena created the mural on the side of Unity Christian Ministries Youth Center in 2020 as a part of a community revitalization project known as "Tacoma Creates Month." He was inspired by winged murals in other communities, which often encourage photography. At the center of the artwork are two butterfly wings for people to pose between, and on either side of them are the faces of four children, each forming half of two heads.

In his dedication of the mural, Pena said, "We are all monarch butterflies fluttering, coming together, all with different cultures and ancestries, but this ground is where we come together to honor our past and celebrate our present and our future as Tacoma under one sun and on this native land. As you become one with the butterfly, you become one with Tacoma."

Since the mural was finished in October 2020, it has become a hot spot for photo ops as tourists and locals pose in front of the larger-than-life monarch wings. This is the first time the mural has been vandalized.

The owner of the building is pressing charges and has asked Pena to restore the mural. Pena plans to start the project soon and predicts it will be done by summer.

"We are hoping he will get fined so we can restore [the mural]. Unfortunately, we don't know how long that'll be or if he'll even pay any damages yet," Pena said on Instagram.

The Tacoma police have yet to confirm whether or not the vandalization of the "I Am Tacoma" mural is the result of a white supremacist organization or just the actions of an individual.

The investigation is still pending, and no fines have been issued, but as of Friday, April 1, Pena has reached his fundraising goals for the restoration project.

Tacoma rallies around mural
However, the vandalization was a hateful act of racism. Now the community is rallying around Pena and making it clear that hatred has no place in Tacoma.

The City of Tacoma has provided funds for the restoration through its "Tidy Up Tacoma" program, which received an influx of donations in response to the vandalization of the mural.

Reactions from saddened Tacoma residents have been pouring in. Joe Zinn commented on Pena's original post, writing, "Hey man, I seen this down the street... It's one of my favorite things in the whole community." Jorge Mota, another Tacoma resident added, "We need that mural back up." Others, like Chelsea Joyce, gave sympathy to Pena, saying, "This is enraging. This is one of my favorite community murals. I am so sorry for the destruction of your beautiful work."

"I never expected this kind of support," Pena said. "Once the investigation starts to settle a little, I'll be back to paint ASAP."

A community divided?
Despite the powerful messages of support Pena has received, other Tacoma residents have let it be known that the hatred that inspired the vandalism is not isolated to just one person.

KING-5 News broke the story of the vandalization of "I Am Tacoma" but received mixed reactions on Facebook to its reporting. After posting the story to its page, KING-5 garnered hundreds of responses indicating sadness and anger at the news. However, 12 people responded with a laughing reaction, including Dave McMullan, the chairman of the Pierce County Republican Party.

McMullan has a history of supporting right-wing neo-Nazi organizations. In 2019 he publicly endorsed the founder of fringe extremist militia "Washington 3%," Matt Marshall, for the Eatonville school board.

The SGN reached out to McMullan and the Pierce County Republican Party for comments on the vandalization of the mural. McMullan clarified that his reaction to the news was the result of a technology mix-up. "Quite simply it was an accident, I meant to hit the 'wow' emoji but, on my phone, I hit the wrong one and didn't notice," he said. "I don't like vandalism of any kind and wish people would respect others' property."

Some have voiced concerns that the vandals may be associated with the white supremacist group Patriot Front, which is known to deface public artwork. The hate group was formed after the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville and is led by Thomas Rousseau, who helped lead members of Vanguard America at the rally, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the years since 2017, Rousseau has worked to rebrand the group away from Nazi memorabilia and toward American patriotism; its manifesto calls for a "white ethnostate." The group has been associated with the vandalization of the Arthur Ashe mural in New York City's Battery Park and the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, and the defacement of a George Floyd statue, also in New York City.

The hate group is not concentrated in one place but has members spread throughout the country. According to NPR, one in six Patriot Front applicants have ties to the US military. Its latest confirmed link to Washington state is its involvement at a protest against abortion rights in January of this year.