For years, it served as a kind of gateway to Wilkinsburg: a colorful mural depicting community members that spanned a railroad overpass on Penn Avenue, on the western edge of the borough’s business district.
The mural, completed in 2006, was a product of the community too – an early project of Moving the Lives of Kids (MLK), a nonprofit arts group led by artist Kyle Holbrook, who grew up in Wilkinsburg. The mural was painted with the permission of Norfolk Southern Corporation, which owns the rail line, and backed by funders including the foundation-supported Multicultural Arts Initiative.
The painting was one of a series of eight honoring Wilkinsburg’s history that were completed over a period of four years. Holbrook said meetings in the community, which is majority Black, guided their design, and local teenagers were paid to help complete them.
Holbrook said figures in the 15-foot-tall overpass mural included 14 victims of gun violence in Wilkinsburg. Among them were his own best friend from childhood, Demond Buckner, who was killed shortly before the mural was completed. Holbrook painted Buckner’s portrait himself.
Holbrook went on to become one of Pittsburgh’s best-known muralists; he has worked around the U.S. and internationally, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Miami.
But in mid-June, Holbrook was shocked to learn from friends that the mural on that railroad overpass was being destroyed. Beginning in early June, workers for Norfolk Southern had begun to repair the deteriorating concrete on the 100-year-old overpass. The mural that adorned the concrete was half-gone by the time Holbrook heard about it, and in a few days more had given way to a pair of blank, gray walls flanking Penn.
By coincidence, Holbrook was spending a lot of time in Pittsburgh just then. He was wrapping up the Liberation Wall, a huge Black-history mural in Homewood, when he learned about the Wilkinsburg mural.
The loss of Buckner’s portrait was especially painful. “When I saw it, my heart was broke. I felt like I lost him again,” said Holbrook.
Holbrook takes no issue with the need for the construction project. But he does contend the mural’s destruction violated a federal law, one that requires a property owner to notify any artist whose work is being removed. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 requires owners to hold off on removal for 90 days after contact is made, says Aman Gebru, a Duquesne University law professor specializing in intellectual property.
Holbrook said he would have used those 90 days to document the mural better photographically, and to begin exploring how to restore it after the work was done. “Being able to go there and just say goodbye, and say some prayers, one last time, would have meant a lot as well,” he said.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson said via email that the company understands Holbrook’s concerns, but did not respond to a direct question about whether it had attempted to notify him. The railroad told told WESA on July 17 that it planned to contact Holbrook with “options for moving forward.” But Holbrook confirmed that while he had been in contact with Norfolk Southern, by July 17 it had been about two weeks since he'd heard from the company.
Murals can help define a community, says Max Gonzales, a graffiti artist and muralist who lives two blocks from the mural site. Gonzales didn’t work on the mural – it predates his time in Pittsburgh – but has lived in Wilkinsburg for three years and passes the site daily.
“It becomes part of your community, it becomes part of your community identity,” he said. “And in some ways it just helps you fixate on identifying what Wilkinsburg is.”
Other installments in the 2006 MLK project still survive, including one on the adjacent East Busway overpass, which is visible to those traveling the other direction on Penn. But the community still feels the loss, said Gonzales.
“Unfortunately, by removing that mural, it is an erasure of identities, it’s an erasure of a neighborhood’s identity, and literal faces, and people,” he said. “It’s not just removing paint on a wall. It’s removing a story, it’s removing the stories that developed around that wall.”
Outdoor paintings are inherently ephemeral. The elements wear them down, and property owners are largely free to do as they wish. The Visual Artists Rights Act, known as VARA, shifted the balance of power slightly.
“The intention of the act was to protect the public’s interest in this art,” said Gebru, the law professor.
VARA has a lot of loopholes that favor property owners, Gebru said. But in recent years, “I’ve seen cases where a lot of artists are being aware of the act and actually using their rights [under] the act to bring people to court.”
In the biggest such case, a federal appeals court in February upheld a $6.75 million award to a group of graffiti artists whose work was destroyed, in 2013, in Queens, New York, by a building owner who had given them permission to paint there. The site was called 5 Pointz, and it was large enough to draw tourists.
The Wilkinsburg mural was not of that magnitude, and Holbrook said he isn’t contemplating legal action. He said he’d just like to restore the mural.
“I certainly don’t think we should be destroying our black monuments that were created with the community that are documenting our history,” he said.