Arlington’s Rougned Odor ‘punch’ mural created a brawl over city policies. Here’s what might change

Arlington leaders proposed city policy changes after Juan Velazquez’s mural of Rougned Odor punching Jose Bautista was deemed out of code compliance. Artists say the proposal should go further.

By Kailey Broussard, KERA NewsJuly 26, 2023 10:15 am, ,

From KERA News:

After Juan Velazquez’s mural of “The Punch” made waves internationally – and with city code enforcement – local artists are waiting to see whether Arlington will become a friendlier place to paint.

The mural, painted on the side of Gilberto’s Taco Shop at 611 Park Row Dr., captured international attention for its depiction of the punch former Texas Rangers infielder Rougned Odor threw at José Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays. Its second round of fame came when restaurant owner Jose Ruiz was told the mural violated city code, then that the mural would stay as city council considered changes to the ordinance.

After two afternoon work session meetings, council has come to a compromise: the city will add on new zones where business owners can commission murals without a permit. However, the new zones leave out murals including Velazquez’s depiction of “The Punch.”

A mural depicts Texas Rangers infielder punching Toronto Blue Jays' José Bautista. The mural is inspired by a famous photograph of the incident.

Kailey Broussard / KERA News

Prominent Fort Worth muralist Juan Velazquez painted the iconic punch former Texas Rangers infielder Rougned Odor threw at the Toronto Blue Jays' José Bautista.

City ordinances require business owners go through one of two permitting processes before painting a mural: apply for a zoning specification known as a “planned development” or an “alternate sign plan.”

The compromise would “grandfather” existing murals under the ordinance, including Velazquez’s. That means murals outside of the permitted zones would be considered in compliance — for now. Business owners with grandfathered art would need to apply for one of the two city planning processes when the murals need to be repainted or their buildings change ownership.

Velazquez said he doesn’t want a pass for his mural. He wants all parts of town to have access to art, especially low-income areas.

“What are you saying? That they can’t have murals? You know, it’s not fair, and I just think that everybody should have access to the same type of art,” Velazquez said.

Current city policies limit murals to parts of downtown and the entertainment district. Council’s compromise would add the newly codified International Corridor to the list, as well as a larger swath of downtown. Any business outside of the areas would need to apply for a planned development or an alternate sign plan from the city.

A man stands in front of a mural depicting a saxophone being played surrounded by white squiggle lines on a black backdrop. The man is Juan Velasquez, who is painting the mural.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA News

Juan Velazquez paints a mural Friday, July 14, 2023, at Pepper Mill Lounge in Fort Worth.

Council members said during May and June meetings they appreciate public art, but fear that giving the whole city “carte blanche” to paint could generate divisive artwork.

“There’s a lot of good-hearted people in the world that do beautiful, good pieces of art,” said Andrew Piel, District 4 council member, during the June 13 afternoon meeting. “I’ve also learned over the past several years there are a lot of people out there who are just trolls.”

Mayor Jim Ross said in an interview that the proposal was a “compromise” that still allows for public art, regardless of location.

“There are certain parts of the city that are, I think, more conducive to having murals and having murals make a positive impact in those communities than others. It doesn’t mean that on an individual basis that a mural wouldn’t be beneficial, it just means that it’s not carte blanche allowed in an area. It just means you have to come and get permission for it,” Ross said.

City paperwork deters artists

Velazquez has heard from several contemporaries about run-ins with the city.

“I had a lot of artist friends that told me they tried to paint in Arlington, and their project got shut down,” he said.

Travis Avila said an Arlington tattoo parlor commissioned him for a mural in 2015 . After drafting designs and buying supplies, the business received a letter from the city stating that murals were not allowed. The experience discouraged him from taking on Arlington projects. He called Velazquez when he heard about his plans.

“I was like, ‘Look, Juan, I haven’t done work in Arlington for 10 years because of the damn city ordinances,’” Avila recalled.

Watching Velazquez’s work in Arlington take off – and Velazquez’s pushing for the mural to stay – was a ray of hope for him and other artists who would like to do work in town.

“It kind of brought light to me, and it brought light to a lot of other artists that I know to see Juan do that,” Avila said.

Avila said he and other muralists would love to paint in town. After all, Arlington is the largest mid-city in the region and home to AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Field.

“You can damn near say it’s the Arlington Cowboys, you know? … We’re the ones spending our money and our tickets going to these places. Why can’t we make the city of Arlington gorgeous without being interrupted or without having these city ordinances?” Avila said.

Permitted area or not, city employees counted about 61 murals around town while compiling data for a city council presentation. Downtown Arlington Management Corporation lists a bevy of murals on its website, as well as a tour.

From his business’s downtown storefront, Mark Joeckel of Create Arlington can watch visitors pose in front of Theatre Arlington’s red-and-blue wraparound mural.

“It’s just a steady stream all day, every day, of people coming to take pictures,” Joeckel said.

Joeckel is responsible for some of the murals on the city’s list. Through his Facebook page Arlington Texas Proud, he organized residents and artists to paint several murals in the once-popular Park Plaza Shopping Center.

“I posted that it was the ugliest wall in Arlington. Who wants to paint it? That’s really the beginning of all these artists and musicians coming together for that project,” Joeckel said.

With the owner’s blessing, Joeckel organized a rotation of artists to paint along the wall and canvassed the neighborhood for their ideas and requests. A mural of a honeycomb by Arlington artist Amy Stevens remains; the rest have since been painted over.

A mural is seen on the side of a building depicting a honeycomb pattern.

Kailey Broussard / KERA News

A honeycomb mural behind a Park Plaza Shopping Center building is reminiscent of a 2014 project by Arlington Texas Proud to decorate 300 feet of a building's back wall. The wall once featured by a myriad of artists who painted on a rotating schedule, according to Mark Joeckel of Create Arlington.

The project was a pivotal one for Joeckel to create his business, began what’s known as the West Main Arts Festival, make connections with local artists and bring the community together. He can see Velazquez’s mural having the same effect.

“It checked off all the boxes of what we’re trying to do to really uplift local artists, pay local artists to do these things, and it’s great for the creative economy,” Joeckel said.

He just wishes the process were easier citywide.

“That whole sign permitting process, that’ll suck the energy out of anybody,” Joeckel said.

‘Make the city look good’

Council members said during the meeting that they love and welcome public art but fear the divisive political times might foment controversial murals.

Nikkie Hunter, District 3 council member, said in an interview that she understands artists’ frustrations. However, the policies are set in place for a reason.

“One person’s creativity might be something that’s offensive to another, so I think these policies that are put in place, there’s definitely a very specific reasoning for them,” Hunter said.

Business owners who have trouble obtaining permission for murals can go to city council for help, Hunter added.

Between the price tag associated with commissioning a mural and artists’ reputations, there’s a lot at stake for creators, Velazquez said. That means artists generally take on projects that will not intentionally cause controversy or make the building look worse.

“We’re just trying to pay our bills and do what we love, which is art,” he said.

Avila said both artists and city leaders ultimately want the same thing.

“We’re actually here to make y’all look better, make y’all look good, make the city look good,” he said.

The proposed changes will go to Arlington’s Planning and Zoning Commission Aug. 2, according to Gincy Thoppil, Arlington’s Planning and Development Services director. The proposal could go before city council this fall.

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