Art Is Not Permitted
Free Times - Volume 14, Issue 51
Published April 11th, 2007
by Michael Gill
Tremont Coffee Shop Removes "Glass Graffiti" After City Determines It Was Not Art
ART THREAT - The coffee sign must go.
Sometimes you can't help but scratch your head and ask, what is art, anyway?
Last year Bob Holcepl, owner of the Tremont coffee shop Civilization, commissioned neon artist Jeff Chiplis to create something for the southern exterior wall of his building, which, when Holcepl opened his doors in 1990, was one of the first historic renovations and new businesses in the neighborhood.
It was a commission with no strings attached: Chiplis, who works in neon, could make whatever he wanted to add some light and color to the big blank wall facing Lincoln Park. Holcepl says he knew the artist's work and was comfortable that, even without direction, Chiplis "wasn't going to make a gigantic penis or something." So he gave him free reign. And they didn't ask for any permits, for either the sculpture or the electrical work, because, like most neon sculpture, it would be simply plugged into an existing outlet like a lamp or a string of Christmas lights. And it never occurred to them that someone might claim it wasn't art.
Chiplis' first take on the project was an abstract tangle of neon tube which he decided he didn't like, so he went back to his studio and made something else. And so at 8 p.m. July 14, 2006, Civilization hosted an art opening — the flip of the switch on "Glass Graffiti." Chiplis had recycled old neon into a scrawl of yellow, looking somewhat like a hurried graffiti tag, except that it happened to spell out the word "Coffee." Holcepl promoted Chiplis' new work with postcards announcing the opening night party with a band, and the exhibition's closing date, a year later.
"It was privately funded public art," Holcepl says.
But someone apparently complained, and the City of Cleveland saw things differently. As far as the city was concerned, the word "Coffee" on the wall of a coffee shop couldn't be art. It had to be a sign. And so they had to regulate it. Within two months of the unveiling, Holcepl got notice that the sculpture was in violation of building code, and that he needed to get a permit for electrical work (which consisted of plugging the piece into an existing outlet), get a sign permit and go through the historic landmark review process.
At first the coffee shop proprietor took up the battle, hiring a lawyer and getting letters of support from SPACES Executive Director Susan Channing and Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture CEO Tom Schorgl. One of his supporters wondered if it would be a problem for a homeowner in the neighborhood to write "house" in neon and hang that on the side of a bungalow.
But as the dual investment of time and money mounted, Holcepl decided to back down. Last week he appeared in court to end the stand-off by telling Judge Ray Pianka and city prosecutors that he'd removed the neon sculpture. Case dismissed. Call off the dogs. The sign police win.
Chiplis's re-interpretation of piece in later show