It is a free-speech free-for-all.
The creators of a Red Hook mural championing free speech are taking the artwork down because someone keeps taking their First Amendment rights too far by vandalizing the piece with a paintball gun.
Last month, a South African artist painted the four-story mural at Columbia and Woodhull streets depicting a woman in hijab with no mouth to highlight Iran’s suppression of free speech. But vandals keep blasting the artwork with red paint, so the artist and the advocacy group that commissioned the piece say they’re removing it out of respect for the neighborhood’s Muslim residents.
“If an Islamic person who lives in the neighborhood walks past that wall and sees the image splattered by a red paint gun, essentially it’s a message of war, death, intolerance,” said artist Faith47, who declined to give her birth name. “It’s an awful message, an extremely alienating and aggressive thing to see. I hate for my work to have any part in that, and therefore, fully support the removal of the work.”
The mural is part of a larger public art campaign by the organization Not A Crime, which aims to highlight Iran’s persecution of journalists and members of the Baha’i religious minority.
Faith47 painted the piece on Aug. 18 and 19, and the vandal first defaced her work sometime before Aug. 21, a representative from the group said.
“As soon as we put it up on the wall, we found that somebody was shooting paint balls at it,” said Not A Crime organizer Saleem Vaillancourt.
No one called the police until a second smearing on Sept. 5, said local authorities, who are still searching for the rogue paintball-gun-slinger.
It is not the first time a paintball sniper has splattered symbols of faith in Brooklyn — one or more scofflaws went on a paint-pellet shooting spree in the Orthodox Jewish section of Williamsburg earlier this year.
Vaillancourt isn’t sure whether the shooting is political, but he doesn’t think it is motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.
“My personal feeling is that it’s not that malicious — it’s more just stupid,” said Vaillancourt, who added that several neighborhood residents have contacted him to express their dismay over the vandalism.
But regardless, the shooter is still undercutting free speech, the artist said — driving home the very point she was trying to paint.
“We’re seeing the correlation of the aggressive censorship of a totalitarian state, and the hateful censorship of an individual,” Faith47 said. “This is not a problem faced only in Iran — this is a deep, human psychological crisis.”
And even if the vandal was trying to make a serious statement via defacement, it is unlikely a judge would rule the paint slugs as speech protected under the First Amendment, according to a lawyer.
“The violation of the laws are clear — it’s criminal mischief, it’s damage of property,” said Ken Womble, an attorney with Downtown law firm Moore Zeman Womble. “If caught, that person or their attorney can try to raise a First Amendment defense all they want, and that will get them exactly nowhere.