Ante upped over downtown Walla Walla mural flap

The city attorney plans to recommend the city take action to remove a mural at Inland Octopus.

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WALLA WALLA -- A mural of a giant purple octopus painted on the front of a downtown Walla Walla building may have a battle against the long arm of the law.

Walla Walla City Attorney Tim Donaldson plans to recommend removal of the artwork, painted over Labor Day weekend without approval from the city, at Main Street toy store Inland Octopus.

Donaldson said the mural -- an octopus peeking over the walls of a castle with a rainbow overhead -- violates the size requirements of the city's sign code. He will recommend enforcement action to the Walla Walla City Council when it meets tonight at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 15 N. Third Ave.

Inland Octopus owner Bob Catsiff maintains the mural is artwork, not a sign. He likens his piece to the mural painted on the side of Second Avenue restaurant El Sombrero. And if instead city officials believe it is a sign, he said the ordinance is so vague that virtually everything from flower pots to bike racks with the city's logo could qualify and therefore be subject to the permitting process.

"I'm not trying to stick it to the city," Catsiff said Tuesday. "The sign standard is out of whack."

Whether Council decides to take action against the artwork, the subject has generated numerous discussions about design standards in the historic downtown core. Consequently downtown officials are exploring whether a new design committee to help mitigate future such disagreements could have legs.

A little background on the subject: Catsiff relocated his 5-year-old business from a Main Street location farther east to 7 E. Main St. in a building owned by Michael May. He had planned for months to commission a mural on the front of the building with May's approval. The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation's design committee rejected his original mural proposal.

After poring through the city code, Catsiff said he could find no legal evidence that the artwork would be in violation.

He acknowledges that he did not have a permit to occupy the right of way during the weekend local artist Aaron Randall painted the colorful mural. Aside from that, Catsiff believes other downtown business and property owners are supportive of the whimsical mural that embodies the spirit of his toy store, if not the more traditional ambience of the historic downtown.

"I've heard absolutely zero negative comments," Catsiff said. Though he has read some opposing comments online about his mural, he said no one has approached him personally to voice their distaste. In fact, upon entering one local business he was met with a round of applause.

"I can't even take the garbage out without someone telling me they like it," he said.

Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini said he's heard mixed reviews from other downtown business operators. He said his board of directors will defer to the city on any code violations. But the question remains: Is the piece a sign or a work of art?

It's also raised another issue with city officials: How involved should the government be in downtown design?

On one hand, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the role of "Taste Police" is one he would like to avoid. On the other: The city has a role in the protection of the downtown's historic integrity and continuity.

Shawa said the city has received a number of complaints about the mural, even if Catsiff hasn't. At the end of the day, the driving force behind the city's response will be the municipal code.

"It's rule of the law," he said. "That's what this nation's about and that's what this city should be about. Of course, if people don't like the rule of the law, that's what democracy is about."

Shawa said he floated the idea of a design review committee by Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini. The committee would be made up of a combination of business/property owners, as well as city representatives with some design expertise. The hope is that it could give some power to the people who operate downtown to help shape the culture of the community.

In the meantime, Shawa doesn't believe the Inland Octopus mural will have a negative impact on downtown. He also doesn't want to see this happen again.

"If it's perpetuated over time and becomes commonplace, you lose the specialness and uniqueness," he said. "There could be economic damage."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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