RED WING, MINN. – You can blame Donald Trump. Or Prince. Or maybe you can blame both for an initiative under consideration by the Red Wing City Council to restrict or ban painting on Barn Bluff — a massive promontory rising 400 feet above the Mississippi River that has served as a kind of public bulletin board since the late 1950s.
Some high school kids raised the town’s hackles two years ago when they painted “Trump” on the rock that generally serves as a place for memorials, American flags or the annual nod to the graduating year of the local high school’s senior class. Someone later altered the sign to read “Dump Trump.”
The city quickly painted over it.
Within weeks, local residents Joe Gibart and Brian Paton followed up with a Prince tribute on the bluff after the singer died of an accidental overdose of painkillers. Someone complained to the city at a time when it was developing a master plan for Barn Bluff, a major tourist attraction and sacred Indian burial ground known by the Dakota people as He Mni Can.
Although it’s illegal to deface public and private property in Red Wing with graffiti, the city has a policy of ignoring it on Barn Bluff — unless someone complains. Then, according to city documents, the City Council president, vice president and mayor consider whether the complaint is “warranted because the painting is of a political nature or is profanity.”
No one seems to know how the Prince memorial crossed that line, but city staff was told to cover it up. Riding a public outcry, Gibart and Paton restored the Prince memorial, adding “16” to the wall to recognize that year’s high school graduating class. The painting went on.
Last year, the city hired a research firm to conduct a scientific, randomized survey of 400 residents to see how they feel about the town. Among the questions — What should be done about Barn Bluff graffiti?
Forty-nine percent said that painting should never be allowed; 23 percent said it should be allowed without any restrictions; 18 percent said it should be allowed with some restrictions; and 10 percent were unsure. The survey has an error rate of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Now, the City Council is weighing whether to put the question to voters.
At a workshop in late January, the City Council discussed what it should do. Brian Peterson, Red Wing’s special projects manager, said police are concerned about unequal enforcement of the graffiti ordinance. He said officers bust people for tagging property around town, yet they must ignore taggers painting on the city’s largest canvas unless someone complains about its content.
Peterson acknowledged the city’s policy “has all sorts of potential legal implications,” principally the unconstitutional restraint on free speech.
The city of Belle Plaine grappled with that hornet’s nest last year when someone erected a memorial in Veterans Park that included a cross. The city, responding to a complaint, ordered it removed. After the public rallied to restore the memorial, the city created a “free speech zone” in the park and made way for the cross and other memorials. After the Satanic Temple got a permit to erect one, the city pulled the plug on the free speech zone. The Satanic Temple sued, alleging discrimination.
Peterson said city staffers in Red Wing also have expressed serious concerns about people getting hurt on Barn Bluff if they step back to admire their work and slide down the hill. And they worry about staff members getting hurt covering up political signs or obscenities, as well as the time and resources it takes to do so.
Bill Hanisch, owner of Hanisch Bakery and Coffee Shop, told the council members that painting on Barn Bluff is safe and has been part of Red Wing since a local bridge crossing the Mississippi River was built from the bluff’s limestone.
It started with the graduating class of 1959, Hanisch said. Since then, the messages have evolved, and have included support for the Twins, Vikings and Wild; marriage proposals; and tributes to the dead.
Hanisch and his 13-year-old son, William, recently painted a tribute to Chris Rodgers, a local coach who worked with troubled youths. Rodgers died Nov. 5 of a rare form of cancer.
Hanisch and others pin the recent controversy on Trump. Although other politicians have been touted on the cliff, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, without a public outcry, “Trump was just a little bit more controversial,” Hanisch said.
Generally, he added, the townspeople paint over any controversial messages. When a red-white-and-blue Russian flag went up after Trump’s election, Hanisch helped convert it to a thin blue line, denoting respect for police.
But City Council Member John Becker said at last month’s workshop that he couldn’t ignore 49 percent of the people in the city’s survey who want to ban painting on the bluff.
“The first time somebody breaks a neck or does something horribly inappropriate, we’re going to have to live with it because we can’t get up there [to cover it up] before it’s on social media,” Becker said. “It will be all over the world if somebody decides to put the N-word up there.”
Gibart challenged the results of the city’s survey. He said at the workshop that he conducted his own, unscientific survey last month on Facebook and in person in Red Wing. Sixteen people said they were uncertain or didn’t care about bluff paintings; 23 said it should be banned; 42 said the city should enforce restrictions; and 1,200 said the city should leave things alone, he said.
Unable to reach consensus on a new policy, the council has directed city staff to study whether a referendum could be held to let Red Wing voters decide. Peterson said he expects to report back in the coming weeks.
That seemed to satisfy Gibart and Hanisch.
“I honestly think that is the best way to get an honest opinion from everyone in town,” Gibart said at the workshop.
“Let’s put this to a vote,” Hanisch agreed.
Becker said this week that his feelings about the bluff painting softened after talking to people about what it means to them.
“People want to be listened to,” he said.