For several days this summer, every time Meg Gray drove by Main Street in her hometown of Bloomingdale she became increasingly excited to see the progress of a mural being painted. It was the face of an older man that reminded Gray of the hardworking residents in her town.
She thought once it was complete, the black-and-white painting on the wall of a towing business would brighten up the downtown filled with a mix of older buildings near the river that her father would often call a hodge-podge. Gray had a hope that the street art would be the first of many along the borough’s dated downtown.
“Here was something simple, and I thought a nice step in the direction of making our downtown a little more beautiful,’’ she said. “It was a beautiful piece of art.”
But while Gray saw the painting as the start of a street revitalization, others saw the making of controversial street art.
Building owner Ray Lombard said his tenant commissioned the painting and he approved it because he was told the artwork would be uplifting. But as the work on it progressed, Lombard said he received calls from several people objecting to the painting. A few people, Lombard said, thought the image could be that of George Floyd, the 46-year-old unarmed Black man murdered last year by Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s killing prompted protests and calls to reexamine systemic racism.
Didn’t want the controversy
The mural was not a portrait of George Floyd, Lombard said, but that he didn’t want anything controversial on his building. He had approved, he said, a mural that would be positive for the community. What he got instead, he said, was something bleak.
“It was an older man, and it was just dark, drab or dreary, like a man in despair,’’ Lombard said. “As opposed … I don’t want to say smiling but something that would be uplifting to a community, not something that made it look like a town in despair.”
The controversy in Bloomingdale, a Passaic County borough of around 8,000 people, mirrors the backlash received by mural artists who have honored Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in other parts of the country while also exposing racial and political divides.
In Toledo, Ohio, an artist who painted a mural depicting Floyd, received threatening comments about the piece, according to news reports. That painting was destroyed earlier this month after it was struck by lightning.
In Philadelphia, a mural of George Floyd was defaced with the logo of a white nationalist group. The vandalism was being investigated by police.
What happened in Teaneck
In New Jersey, after several residents in Teaneck approached officials last year about creating a mural to memorialize Floyd’s death and those of other Black people who died at the hands of police officers, they were told no. Instead, the organizers agreed to a mural that read “Black Lives Matter” on a parking lot adjacent to the township community center, which didn’t include anybody’s name and which was not the location they’d hoped for.
Mayor of Teaneck James Dunleavy told The Record that he supported a mural but wanted to “respect the fact that we have a diverse town,” saying some residents opposed the display because they thought it would create more divisiveness. He hoped to find a way, he said, that would be responsive to not only the “Black community but the town as a whole.”
Like nearly all other controversies now, the complaints received by Lombard over the Bloomingdale mural spilled over to social media. One poster said he opposed any murals on buildings because it would make the small town look like an “inner city,’’ while another who believed the artwork was of George Floyd added the mural was “defacing our town with their beliefs” and that it would make Bloomingdale look “like downtown Newark. ”
Soon after, the mural was painted over. Lombard vowed never again to approve any murals on his buildings.
“The tenant called and said ‘I know you are getting feedback on this and I’m going to paint it over,’ and I said great,’’ Lombard said. “That should have been the end of it, but like I said, people want to hear themselves and make something out of nothing and then people took to social media.”
Michael Rudge, the owner of the towing business in the Main Street building, did not return calls seeking comment. The artist who was commissioned for the work in Bloomingdale was Jayemaich, who could not be reached for comment.
“It’s sad that something that was so beautifully painted was destroyed by racial animus that was misdirected but also just wrong,’’ said Kellie Wade Davidson, a resident of nearby Butler. “The mural was so well done it would have added to our towns, no matter who it was.”
Highlighting people who live in the shadows
Jayemaich, according to his website, was born in New Jersey, and creates “noir-styled pieces” with “monochromatic tones and rigid imagery.” He likes to highlight characters who live in the shadows of society and bring their stories to the forefront, according to his website.
He has painted other murals in New Jersey, including in Montclair in the building that houses the Brick+Dough: A Wood Fired Eatery. That mural, titled The Curse of Socrates, depicts the faces of two elderly women. The black-and-white faces bear prominent wrinkles and creases.
Jason Rosenthal, owner of Brick+Dough, said he commissioned Jayemaich (pronounced JMH) late last year to create the mural, and has received positive reviews for the artwork.
“People are impressed with what he did over here,’’ Rosenthal said, noting that the artist also painted some art inside the restaurant.
Tom Fox, a resident of Bloomingdale, said he too at first thought that the painting in his borough could be of George Floyd, but said he wanted to wait until it was finished to voice any opinion. He said when the mural was nearly complete, he thought it would be a great addition to the downtown.
“To me it looked like an old Italian man who had a worn life,’’ Fox said. “If it would have been finished you would have seen more of the older man come out in the painting.”
Fox said he would have had mixed feelings if the painting had turned out to be of George Floyd. Fox said Floyd died a terrible death and Chauvin, the former police officer who was charged with his murder got what he deserved when he was found guilty and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison. But Fox added that Floyd’s criminal history, which included arrests on theft and drug charges, did not make him a role model.
“I just think there are a lot better people out there to look up to,’’ he said.
Fox said he was disheartened to find out the mural was no more.
“I was a young boy in the 1970s and I saw where we were at that point with racial tension here in the country, and I saw how people were being treated so unfairly 50 years ago and this brought me back to those memories,’’ he said. “It broke my heart, with all the gains that we have had, that we would go back to that.”
Fox, who said he spoke to the artist, said he is hopeful that maybe another business or property owner in town will commission Jayemaich to do another piece.
“It was only a small percentage of people that complained,’’ he said. “The vast majority liked it or was willing to give it a chance.’’