Artist: Painting over Virginia Beach mural is a slap to the military
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2016
WASHINGTON -- When the Navy retired the iconic USS Enterprise in 2013, people came out in droves to pay tribute to the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that had sailed through history for half a century.
In neighboring Virginia Beach, a piece of the Big E remained in the form of a 12,000-square foot mural by local artist Sam Welty painted onto the back of a six-story building along the oceanfront. The mural depicted jets from nearby Naval Air Base Oceana flying over the carrier as it powered through the ocean in rich blues and grays, and it was a familiar and beloved tribute in this military region.
“Thousands of people drive by that mural every day and stare at it because it is such a statement,” said George Smith, who has another of Welty’s murals on a wall in his nearby shop Juice Box Surf. “It says we love and respect the United State military and the sacrifices that are made to keep our country safe.”
But not for long.
As a contractor worked his way with white primer across the giant wall of what is now a privately run Howard Johnson, a community controversy bubbled up in its place. Welty posted an objection on Facebook and news sailed across the close-knit community.
“By this time tomorrow, it will be nothing more than a memory,” he wrote with alarm Sunday. “I ask that if the landmark is to be destroyed and taken so unceremoniously from our community, that we join in a moment as grateful citizens, thanking the men and women who safeguard our way of life.”
The news traveled across Facebook and drew the attention of local media. Welty said he’d spoken with the management months ago about repairing the mural but had not heard back and was surprised by the action. Supporters came out to the site and Welty gave TV interviews.
They questioned why the painting happened overnight, on a weekend, without anyone being notified. And while Welty acknowledged that the owner of the hotel franchise has indicated he wants the mural repainted, nothing has been solidified, he said.
Aaron Patel, who has the franchise and leases the property, said he did not realize the controversy he was creating when he hired a contractor to paint over the mural.
Patel took over the building two years ago, shortly after a new owner bought the run-down property that had been the Flagship Inn. He cleaned up the inside, but said the health department in Virginia Beach was after him to seal the leaky back wall covered by the mural. He and Welty traded phone calls during the tourist season this year but never managed to connect, he said.
With the city warning that he was not code compliant, Patel decided to seal the wall using primer.
“The mural was chipping,” he said. “We had water penetrating inside my building, damaging the hotel, in the rooms. We had to do something. If I could not cover up the mural, I would lose my building.”
Patel said the backlash has been dramatic. His contractor was spooked by the news cameras and the few dozen people that had gathered with Welty in the lot behind the building and quit the job about two thirds of the way through. Work has been halted as Patel searchs for a new contractor. He also saw posts on Facebook posts that he’s “un-American.”
“The last couple of days were a disaster for me,” he said. “No. 1, we are patriotic. We respect Navy veterans -- we are in a military town.”
He said he intends to have Welty paint another mural on the building and is meeting with him next week to discuss it. He plans to offer to pay for the supplies, he said.
But supporters like Smith and his girlfriend Danielle Elswick say there were other ways to handle things. He could have contacted the community, let people know or attempted to patch the leaks without covering up the entire mural.
“For Virginia Beach, being in a military town, I felt like the story and the meaning behind the mural mean so much to the local community. It presented so much happiness to the locals and the military,” she said.
Welty painted the mural on the Flagler Inn in September 2002, just ahead of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The artist was working for a company that painted murals in people’s homes and restaurants, and he asked his boss if he could take time to pay tribute to the local military. A pilot from Oceana had been lost in that first year of the fight and Welty wanted to pay his respects.
He designed the mural to cover the entire back of the building and wrap around the side. He approached the owner of the Flagship Inn with his idea to memorialize the Enterprise and two of the local air wings. He included the pilot who’d been killed.
The project received a huge outpouring of support, Welty said. On the day of its dedication, while people ate barbecue and drank beer in the parking lot, Welty took the squadron up in shifts to the spot on the wall where the plane was painted and they all wrote messages with permanent markers, he said.
Then he took up the pilot’s wife and her two young sons. “I am not a crier, I am not an emotional guy,” Welty said. But in that moment, he imagined the boys growing up, driving by in their mom’s car, or later with their girlfriends, pointing to the wall and saying, “That’s my dad.”
“I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to feel as proud as I did in that moment,” he said. Since then, he’s painted 11 more murals that he calls his “Great America” series because they depict the military or some other aspect of a community that makes it “great.” Sometimes he gets paid, other times, he does it on his own dime, he said.
Meanwhile, over the years, the oceanfront Virginia Beach mural began to deteriorate and in 2013, he repainted the mural, changing it and making it new.
Welty said he had to borrow money to complete the mural the second time and is still paying it off. But what really bothers him now, he said, is the message he believes that covering it up sends.
“I am concerned … it says to the military, ‘You know, we don’t need you.’ We don’t need a tribute to them.”
Welty said he was waiting to see what Patel would offer him Thursday. The cost of the mural involves more than the supplies. For three to four weeks, he won’t be able to work on anything else.
“I am hoping to have a good meeting where everybody comes out of it with a win-win scenario,” he said.