‘Street Art’ Sparks Debate In Portsmouth, NH

By Karen Anderson, WBZ-TV

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Eyesore… or Art?

It’s called Tomorrow Man, and it has lot of people talking in Portsmouth.

Jane James says, “It’s very exciting and it’s something new and different.”

It’s part of a Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art exhibit on “street art.”

Portsmouth MFA’s Cathy Sununu says, “I love that piece.  It’s called the Tomorrow Man, and he’s basically depicting 20th century man, which I think is exuberant and vibrant and energetic, and I think it’s really positive.  If it were vandalism, I’d consider it defacement, but we’re a museum, we undertook the exhibition with permission from the private property owners.”

WBZ-TV’s Karen Anderson reports.

Jane James asked if her building on the corner of State and Pleasant Streets could be included. A Greek artist, Alexandros Vasmoulakis, painted the entire side of her building, with an image of a man that includes a large mouth, as well as hearts, and an ice cream cone.

“I’m excited about it,” Jane says.

But not everyone agrees. Rob McDowell created a petition for the Mayor and City Council to express their displeasure with the street art.

He writes, “While this type of so-called art might have looked appropriate on the Berlin Wall while you’re trying to convince the Soviets to go home the residents of Portsmouth have no where to retreat but in revulsion at this stuff.”

Could the city take action?

No, according to City Attorney Robert Sullivan. He says, “The city actually has no authority to take any action at all, in connection with the petition, or with that piece of graffiti.”

“The city regulates almost all things in the historic district with regard to the appearance of buildings.  For example if you want to change the windows in that  building, the owner would have to get permission from a city commission.  However, one thing that is not regulated is the color of the buildings,” Sullivan added.

Sullivan explains, “The decision was made at the time the law was created that the building owner ought to be able to decide what color they want their building to be, so that was left out.”

What’s the difference between the “street art” and illegal graffiti?  Sullivan says it’s legal if the building owner allows it, and it’s illegal if they don’t.

Sullivan says there has been a spike in illegal graffiti since the exhibit opened, but police are working to catch those responsible.

The Portsmouth City Council was set to discuss the petition Monday night.

The Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art is hosing an open discussion forum this Wednesday, June 8th at 6 pm at the Museum at 1 Harbor Place in Portsmouth.  The public is welcome to come and express their opinions.

The exhibit will be on display though the summer.

What does Jane say to people who say this doesn’t fit in with downtown Portsmouth?  “It’s only paint… Street art is temporary.  It is not going to be here forever.  Eventually it will get painted.”

  • Kevin McCain

    I believe the imagery is very exciting. Love the work.


  • Theresa Grygotis

    I was not aware of the graffiti project going on and when I first stumbled upon the first piece of work, I hated it. I liked the art work, but I hated it being on the side of a quaint old building. I think graffiti has it’s place in the world of art, but the “frame” for art work is usually chosen wisely to do the art work justice. When I think of graffiti I think of walls, bridges, or old boring (usually run down) buildings, and almost always tucked away and somewhat hidden, not quaint historical buildings right out in the opening. I just don’t think the “frame” that was chosen does the artwork or the buildings justice.

  • Anon

    Theresa, it’s called contrast.

  • Cinque

    If that piece of “art” depicts 20th century man, I have to assume that it was done by a radical feminist who has a low opinion of men. Some will like it and some won’t but that is the world of art. This particular piece would make me take a different street to work. Imagination without skill gives us such work.

  • Whatever

    How about the vulgarity? It’s a man’s face in the middle of an outline of female legs. Not what I want to see as I stroll to town. Just paint over it now and quit pushing your “statement” on every passer by.

  • Tara

    Theresa- I take issue with you using our citizens and city (Portsmouth) to further your own agenda. Philip Case Cohen, the man you interviewed who said “I wouldn’t have it on the side of my house…” says you took him out of context, and it’s true, you did. He has expressed his disappointment with your lack of reporting skills on his blog. There were plenty of conflicting viewpoints without misrepresenting supporters. Next time, find someone who actually feels the way you represent. Taking people out of context just makes you look like an amateur.

  • Tara

    Sorry- the above comment was geared toward Karen Anderson, not Theresa.

  • Philip Case cohen

    From a resident interviewed for the piece:

    “I’ll start with this afternoon’s post with some background. The Portsmouth Museum of Art has curated an exhibit currently on display in the museum and on some of the exterior walls of buildings/etc. around the city. If you’re a local, you know that this has become quite the hot button and topic of conversation among people throughout the city.

    With the acceleration of the story and the press, the Union Leader posted a story on its front page about how some locals were highly offended. I am perfectly aware that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and actually love that the exhibit has some people so upset. As an artist myself, I welcome the controversy and the dialogue.

    When I was heading to Dos Amigos for lunch yesterday, I saw a reporter and cameraman poised on the corner opposite the “Tomorrow Man” piece on the Marple & James building. The streets were mostly empty, so when heading in their direction, they began to come up with their pitch – which I turned down 3 times before finally agreeing to comment on camera. I shared what was probably a 3-4 minute thought, which included how I thought it’s been great for the town despite some people taking issue with the historic buildings getting a makeover, and how the artistic community has been engaged on a broader level (not to mention that the exhibit has brought Portsmouth additional awareness from artists around the world).

    Of my (what I thought was) thoughtful response, they chose one sound bite – one that helped further their agenda of airing a controversial piece – which was that I wouldn’t have my house painted with street art. Of course I wouldn’t, I don’t live downtown, I live in a purely residential area without retail uses or pedestrians other than my dog walking neighbors. That didn’t matter – they wanted to show people taking digs at the artwork and at the museum. It’s really unfortunate, because it’s what I had expected to happen and why I turned it down several times. I thought that if I opined, I might actually bring some positive light to the story – but sadly, Karen Anderson of WBZ-TV proved me wrong. As a supporter of the Portsmouth Museum of Art, I’m deeply disappointed in WBZ, but thrilled the conversation continues.”


  • Jason

    Has anyone stopped to think that the reason why we are seeing illegal graffiti is because artists are crying out be seen & heard. Maybe if they had some “free walls” to decorate, they would leave your precious antique buildings(and your antiquated points of view) alone. I am a musician so I am fortunate to be able to express myself in many venues. Graffiti artist, & they are artists, are merely expressing themselves. I live in Boston & I am delighted to see & share the beautiful artwork throughout a dirty, dingy city scape.

  • J.Q.

    I left this comment on a different blog and am re-posting it below.

    “…If it were vandalism, I’d consider it defacement, but we’re a museum, we undertook the exhibition with permission from the private property owners.””

    Therefore, I see no problem with the exhibits. I personally don’t like the way some of them look, but that is irrelevant; it is not my nor the neighbors place to tell others what to do with their property.

    What I do find appalling is that some people are spraying paintballs at the paintings, which is vandalism. The neighbors who went to the city officials – implying that they believe force is a proper way to deal with others, and that citizens don’t have a right to choose what is done with their property – don’t belong in the free state that is New Hampshire.

  • J.Q.

    But of course.. the issue may be more complex than this because – who is paying for all of this? Is the museum being funded by taxpayer dollars? What about the artists? All of which are good reasons why art should not be funded by forced payment by everyone, some of which who will disagree with the content.

  • Bo

    The irony is that none of this work is ‘graffiti’ or would be considered such in any major metropolitan city. All of these artists have shown in some of the most recognized galleries in the world and have all been part of other museum exhibits. None of them are ‘tagging’ or defacing property, simply painting murals that are more often than not highly sought after.

    I think everyone needs to relax, open their minds for something outside their comfort zones and try to appreciate something new. They might even learn to enjoy it…

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