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After Some Wrangling, Santa Barbara Council Votes Against ‘Gatorboy’ Mural

Officials uphold the Historic Landmarks Commission's decision that Cajun Kitchen's artwork doesn't fit within the established guidelines

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday reluctantly sided with the Historic Landmarks Commission, deciding that a mural depicting a boy riding an alligator while holding a cup of coffee was not consistent with the design of a specific downtown area.

The “Gatorboy” mural at the center of the public hearing was painted earlier this year by local artist Curt Crashaw on a blank wall facing the parking lot of the Cajun Kitchen at 901 Chapala St.

Because the mural was created without consulting the city, and after a complaint was filed about its inappropriateness, the Historic Landmarks Commission in August granted temporary approval of the as-built mural — allowing it to be displayed for one year at the corner of Chapala and West Canon Perdido streets before it must be painted over.

Cajun Kitchen co-owner Juan Jimenez appealed that decision to the City Council, which on Tuesday unanimously voted to deny his request in favor of upholding the temporary installation, since the artwork doesn’t comply with guidelines for permanent art within the El Pueblo Viejo Landmark District.

Although most council members called the work tasteful, they all agreed it didn’t fit within already established rules.

Senior city planner Jaime Limón said the mural was contemporary art — not framed traditionally — resembling a too-large corporate logo, which bordered on signage. 

The restaurant should have gone through a public-art review process, Limón said, even though the mural was painted on private property.

“Other cities do have the same problem,” Limón said, noting that Los Angeles had to set standards because of mural messages.

Jimenez explained that the mural was part of Cajun Kitchen’s rebranding and updating efforts after more than 30 years in business. He said his family immediately loved the charming and lighthearted "Gatorboy" design, incorrectly and naively assuming they didn’t have to gain city approval.

“It felt like the perfect place that this image could go on was the back parking lot, with a blank, plain, ugly wall,” Jimenez said.

He argued that the mural was not that noticeable, and refuted landmarks commission claims that allowing the artwork to stay would set a bad precedent.

The commission already protects against such artwork, Jimenez said, imploring council members to help change the way the city classifies art.

The Cajun Kitchen also started a social media campaign, where hundreds of locals posed beside the mural and posted pictures in support of keeping it.

“We believe that this mural does no harm to downtown Santa Barbara, and the community really enjoys it,” Jimenez said.

After questions from the council, Limón said reviewing artwork on private property is guided by a document, not by an official process.

Gerardo Ayala, chairman of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, spoke during public comment as a resident who enjoys the mural, but understands it has to be taken down due to guidelines. He suggested that the council consider redefining what constitutes public space in commission guidelines so this doesn’t happen in the future.

Jimenez agreed, noting that nothing seemed clear when the restaurant was going through the commission hearing process.

As the council’s liaison to the landmarks commission, Councilman Dale Francisco said the guidelines are very clear, although he wouldn’t mind a future discussion updating current rules.

“Really, by their own rules, they shouldn’t have allowed it at all,” Francisco said of the commission, noting that the next similar mural might not be as tasteful.

Councilwoman Cathy Murillo wanted to fight for the mural, since the restaurant is such an institution, but she said it just didn’t fit in the neighborhood.

“Outside of the boundary, I would fight for Gatorboy, too,” she said.

Mayor Helene Schneider reluctantly agreed with her colleagues, suggesting rules could be re-examined by next August, when Cajun Kitchen could renew its request to keep it.

“This place is not packed with people saying get rid of Gatorboy,” she said. “I do think there’s something we can do in the next 12 months.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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