Midvale neighbors discuss ‘inappropriate’ mural: Is it a man’s arm or a female breast?

Midvale officials say the painting, which received city funding, will stay put.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new mural in Midvale, pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, is sparking controversy with some constituents debating whether it is pornographic or just artistic.

The mural is hard to miss when passing Midvale’s Main Street. It may not be the brightest or the largest, but it’s the talk of the town.

The earth-toned piece, on a tattoo shop’s outer wall, depicts a woman embracing a man, while a dark presence in a cape and wings creeps nearby.

Whether children should be exposed to the piece depends on the eye of the beholder. Some neighbors brought the matter to the City Council. As they described its “pornographic” hints, they asked Midvale officials to cover it or have it removed. For others, however, any suggestion that the piece is sexually explicit seemed “far-fetched.”

According to the artist, Shae Petersen, his painting is straightforward.

“It’s a woman protecting a man from darkness,” he said. As with any other commissioned job, Petersen worked with the owner of the shop to develop the mural, which won city approval.

Some residents say the proportions and shading make the drawing confusing, especially an area that could be either the man’s arm or, opponents say, a female breast.

“[The mural] shows an apparently naked male and female, looking as if they are experiencing ecstasy,” Midvale resident Casandra Sharp said during a council meeting. “...It is my opinion that the artist was purposefully trying to create confusion with an optical illusion in order to get away with painting nudity.”

Sharp also said the woman looks more like a child than an adult.

“We should not allow nudity, even an art form, on our historic Main Street,” she said. “We want it to be a wholesome, family-friendly place for our children and grandchildren to visit.”

Wayne Sharp, her husband and a former Midvale council member, posted the same concern on the Midvale Residents Facebook group, where it generated a buzz in the online community.

About 2.000 of the approximately 5,700 members of the Facebook group saw the post, said Amanda Hollingsworth, its administrator. Sharp’s post proved polarizing, but most respondents favored the mural.

“That goes to show that, you know, our city is really craving some artistic outlet,” said Hollingsworth, while acknowledging there are more pressing concerns. “I wish we had more engagement on issues that really affect us in our day-to-day lives.”

Midvale wants to be an art city

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new mural in Midvale, pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, is sparking controversy with some constituents debating whether it is pornographic or just artistic.

There’s nothing the city could do to cover the mural, multiple city officials, including Mayor Marcus Stevenson, said during the council meeting. Though the piece was partially funded by a city program, which aims to transform Midvale into an art hub, it’s still on private property.

There also appeared to be no appetite to take action. The wall doesn’t violate community guidelines, and the artist has First Amendment rights.

“If a private business in Midvale put something up that was clearly pornographic or sexually explicit, we do have ordinances in place that could allow us to have that removed,” said council member Dustin Gettel. “But, in this instance, it’s just a very small group of citizens who, in my opinion, are making quite a big deal about something that just really isn’t there.”

In Gettel’s view, if the city were to respond to this complaint, it would set a “dangerous precedent.”

“How many people does it take to come in to complain about a piece of art,” he asked, “for the city to cave and take it down?”

Midvale signed off on the mural concept. Like most of Petersen’s work, it was a stylized realism draft, inspired by Greek art. After receiving feedback, Petersen made adjustments. The city funds were released after the mural was completed.

“You kind of have to deal with both sides,” Petersen said. “I’m able to produce art and that’s visible to the vast majority of the public without them having to go in and see it in the gallery. But, unfortunately, not everyone’s going to like what you create.”

‘I’m a father as well,’ says artist

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shae Petersen in front of one of his murals on 300 West and 3300 South in 2017.

Petersen’s work had been criticized in the past when he tried to paint a stylized panther and a woman teasing a bare shoulder on a South Salt Lake strip club wall. South Salt Lake said then that the artwork shouldn’t advertise sexually oriented businesses and that it should follow neutral color palettes.

He didn’t intend his work at Midvale’s Dark Arts Tattoo shop to be sexually explicit, he said. “I’m a father as well, and I wouldn’t ever want to create something that was forced upon children that was even remotely offensive,” Petersen said. “I feel like there’s a small handful of people that see something that nobody else really does with this mural.”

Though his mural has been discussed at length in Midvale, most comments have been positive.

Calling the piece “pornographic is incendiary,” resident Ashley Shaw said. “It’s important that we have these discussions about art, and it’s important to understand that we can all agree to disagree on art, but it is a human right. And just because somebody doesn’t like something doesn’t mean that they should have the right to take that away from everybody else.”

Though Shaw wouldn’t support removing the mural, she said the discussion made her question whether the city should continue the reimbursement program and how officials approach their approval policy in the future.

Despite the mural spat, the community and government officials see the increasing interest in municipal issues as a positive. The conversation might even pave the way for a new process to formally present similar complaints on works of art. “I know there was some frustration amongst the group who opposed the mural,” Gettel said, “who, I think, maybe just didn’t feel that they were being heard.”

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Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.