Ryan Weyandt, a West St. Paul resident and founder of LGBTQ+ Real Estate Alliance, commissioned a vibrant "Black Lives Matter" mural for his wooden fence last summer. Now, after it became something of a local landmark, the city of West St. Paul says it must be removed because it violates code.
The mural at the corner of Butler and Smith avenues also bears the beaming face of 2020 mayoral candidate Kimetha "Kae Jae" Johnson.
Johnson is staff director of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and founder of Residents of Color Collective, an organization that delivers food to renters in need. According to the West St. Paul Reader, she was the first Black person to run for municipal office in the history of the city, where three-fourths of residents are white.
Johnson said she drives by the fence at least once a week with her granddaughter, who loves seeing it. "It's so important in this day and time … with what's going on in Minneapolis," she said. "That message is needed."
Weyandt, who supported Johnson's candidacy, grew frustrated when her campaign signs kept disappearing from lawns across the city, he said. He hired local artists Edgar Herrera and Guillermo Valadez to splash a theft-proof campaign mural across the entire length of his fence.
"The majority of the attention we've received has been positive," he said.
There's been backlash, too. Weyandt said he and his husband received verbal harassment "laced with profanity, anti-LGBTQ sentiments and general disapproval" of the mural from one neighbor.
City spokesman Dan Nowicki said the code enforcement team has received more than 20 complaints about the mural since September. He said it's impossible to tell how many different people made those complaints because some were anonymous.
The mural violates a West St. Paul ordinance stating, "Fences shall not contain pictures or letters and shall be one uniform color."
The city didn't take action right away because state law allows signs of any size during election season. That period ended Nov. 13, however, and the city sent a series of compliance letters starting Nov. 25. Recognizing that it would be difficult to repaint in the winter, the city gave Weyandt an extension until April 15.
"While the City understands the message on this particular fence is very important to the homeowner and many members of our community, the City cannot and does not take content or message into account when dealing with infractions of City Code," Nowicki said in an e-mail.
If Weyandt doesn't paint over the mural by April 15, he could receive citations every 10 days starting at $200 and escalating to $2,000 per ticket.
After posting on Facebook about the city's order, Weyandt received hundreds of comments from neighbors who suggested donating the fence to a museum, reassembling it in West St. Paul's art park at Butler and Oakdale avenues, or taking it on the road as part of a mobile art installation.
Neighbors have offered to paint the fence professionally for free, or crowdfund for the impending fines.
Weyandt said he hasn't yet decided what to do. "Ultimately, I don't feel right taking money on something that was our decision to go through with, especially since it was a project we commissioned and paid for," he said. "But knowing that we have that kind of support certainly makes this battle a little less lonely."
Susan Du • 612-673-4028