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Painting the Town

George Hunt mural in danger on South Main.

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On the north wall of 300 South Main, in a downtown neighborhood known as the arts district, the future of a mural is in jeopardy.

For more than 20 years, the wall has been home to "Taking Care of Business," a mural created by a group of students under the supervision of celebrated local artist George Hunt. It was one in a series of murals created around the city during 1983, and one of only two murals remaining.

However, a local businessman's plans to renovate the building have cast doubt on how long the mural will exist.

Divine Mafa, who recently leased the building from the Church of God In Christ, arranged to have the building — and the mural — repainted a dark teal. Mafa has several businesses downtown and plans to open a clothing boutique on the property in early November.

"I didn't even know it was a painting," Mafa says. "I thought it was graffiti. ... The brick is bad, and the people [who originally created the mural] never primed it and never repaired the brick."

Mafa's plans for the mural were thwarted, for the time being, by a concerned South Main resident.

Hank Cole, one of the founders of the South Main Association, has passed the mural every day since it was created. When he discovered it was in jeopardy, he immediately contacted the Memphis Landmarks Commission and even went so far as to park his truck on the sidewalk to prevent painting crews from destroying the artwork. An injunction from the Landmarks Commission temporarily halted the project.

"Taking Care of Business" in its infancy
  • "Taking Care of Business" in its infancy

"The whole thing came up so suddenly," Cole says. "I just noticed it and tried to do something about it."

According Cole, Mafa had not obtained the necessary permit to change the wall. "We're a preservation district," Cole says. "All projects that change the face on a building must be approved by the Landmarks Commission."

Mafa says he obtained the necessary permit October 19th.

But Cole, Mafa, and COGIC-attorney Jay Bailey decided recently that the mural will stay intact until a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached.

Mafa asserts that he has the right to paint the building whenever he chooses but is giving the arts community until December 1st to come up with a plan.

"I could paint now," he says, "but I'm not going to. ... I am a businessman first. I want my business to look attractive."

David Simmons of LongRiver Art/Source, George Hunt's gallery, says the artist has qualms about the condition of the mural.

"We've talked about these murals in the past, and he felt that they had been neglected," Simmons says. "When people talked about saving them or restoring them, his opinion was to let them live their life or paint over them."

Bennie Nelson West, who originally helped organize the mural project in 1983, agrees. West, now director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, says the best option is to find funds to paint a new mural over the old one.

"And maybe do a few more around the city," she adds hopefully.

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