Four years ago, St. Paul shop owner Jit Bhatia decided to turn the sidewalk in front of his W. Seventh Street storefront into a canvas. He commissioned young artists to spray-paint the concrete in front of Maharaja’s, stocked with T-shirts, posters, memorabilia and incense.
The painting elicited complaints of graffiti, followed by a robust City Council debate about what constitutes art. Ultimately, city officials gave permission for a temporary sidewalk art display. A June 30 deadline to remove the art came and went.
Time is up, city officials said this week.
Crews went to work power-washing the sidewalk and are billing Bhatia for the cleanup. By Wednesday afternoon, the sidewalk painting that includes a large checkerboard pattern and a Hindu deity was less visible.
Bhatia, a self-described hippie and arts patron who has owned and operated the shop at that location since 1988, said he’s not pleased by the decision to remove the art but said he’ll continue to support young artists by displaying and selling their work in his shop and online.
“It’s not in my DNA to destroy art,” Bhatia, 71, said as he surveyed what’s left of the sidewalk painting.
St. Paul Public Works Director Kathy Lantry said Bhatia knew the sidewalk painting could not stay permanently, and he did not respond to her repeated requests to remove it by the deadline.
“He put art on someone else’s property. He doesn’t own the sidewalk,” Lantry said.
The incident places St. Paul in a larger debate playing out in cities across the country wrestling with the line between art and graffiti and where it is appropriate.
Lantry said city officials bent over backward to allow for the temporary display after the painting had been done.
“We are just trying to get him to follow the rules,” Lantry said. “The city code is super clear. It says you can’t paint the sidewalk. End of discussion.”
Bhatia, an immigrant from India, has owned businesses in the Twin Cities since the 1970s and moved his shop to the W. Seventh building, which he owns, in 1988. It originally was a head shop, but Bhatia moved his inventory of pipes and tobacco products to an adjacent smoke storefront, leaving Maharaja’s as an alternative gift shop stocked with music memorabilia including posters and T-shirts and an assortment of other novelties. The second floor is full of original art and prints that he sells in his store and in a growing online business, Nevermind Gallery, managed by his son.
Bhatia said he has always supported aspiring artists, and his passion to help young people has only grown since the death of his 21-year-old daughter in a motorcycle accident in 2016.
“From age 18 to 23, you don’t know what you are doing. You think you are invincible,” said Bhatia, explaining he is taking all that love for his daughter and focusing it on other young people who need support and encouragement.
Bhatia is rebranding Maharaja’s into “The Temple” and will continue to showcase artists and offer space for young people to gather and share. Bhatia is hosting an exhibit for graffiti artist Kater this weekend and has allowed him to paint on his W. Seventh building.
“We need more peace and love,” Bhatia said. “Who is against peace and love?”