October 21, 2015

Bill Cosby Muralist Responds To Vandalism At Ben’s Chili Bowl

By Avery Kleinman

Mural of Bill Cosby on the side of Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street.

Mural of Bill Cosby on the side of Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street.

Since 2012, a large mural has adorned the side of the popular dining spot Ben’s Chili Bowl that features the faces of four men: President Barack Obama, musician Chuck Brown, radio legend Donnie Simpson, and, most controversially, comedian and actor Bill Cosby. The mural was painted before dozens of women came forward with accusations of sexual assault against the comedian. In the months after, many have called into question whether his face should remain on the side of the building.

On Monday, Oct. 19, a large sticker of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on the mural, covering Cosby’s face. A street artist known as “smearleader” took credit for the incident on Instagram, writing:

“Kim’s Chili Bowl. Instead of looking at a sexual predator, people can celebrate in jubilation that the great leader is now on…their Wall.”

The sticker has been removed, but the incident has reignited the debate over the mural, which celebrates Cosby and is easily visible to anyone walking down U Street.

A few weeks ago, we were joined in studio by Aniekan Udofia, the prolific D.C. muralist who painted the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural, to talk about how gentrification is affecting street art. We reached out to him to find out how he felt about Monday’s incident.


How did you feel when you found out your mural had been defaced?

It was upsetting. The real victims here are the people from Ben’s Chili Bowl and the artist. You can’t deface a work like that – it’s disrespectful to the business and disrespectful to the artist.

A lot of the times, if you look at the background of street art and how artists acquire fame, it’s by doing something controversial- like defacing a popular mural on a popular establishment. If I want to gain fame and controversy right now, I would go and graffiti up every mural around. It would result in an investigation and arrest which would make me more famous. But in the long run am I sending out a good message? I don’t think those things were considered.

There are ways for you to get your message across that are much more effective than controversy. You have to be rational about your thought process. We can’t all react by instinct. I understand people feel a certain way about what Bill Cosby did, but we have to understand that if we took laws into our own hands things would get worse.

What if tomorrow we find out that there’s a mural of another prominent person that has dirty secrets from the past? Does that mean that someone else should jump up and say, oh my turn? It would create anarchy that would be out of control. That’s why we have structure: police, military in case things get out of hand. It starts out small like this. First thing, someone defaces a mural, next thing you know a restaurant is burned down, and it keeps going.

Do you think the mural should stay as it is or should Bill Cosby’s face be removed?

That’s solely Ben’s Chili Bowl’s decision. I’m the hands that create the work. My job is to do what I’m hired to do to the best of my ability. I don’t have a say on whether or not it stays up. That’s not what I do as a painter or an illustrator. If there’s going to be a change in the mural, it will be their decision.

I’m really not a judgmental person. I don’t know Bill Cosby; I don’t hang out with him. I don’t feel comfortable passing judgment on that. We all have our shortcomings. I’m not here to say he should be punished. Everything is open to a discussion before you react.

Speaking of wrongdoings, the artist who defaced my work has given a lot of people more pain than he may have initially thought. The real victim here is me as the artist. It took a lot of work to create that mural. Creating it was a tedious process. It wasn’t spontaneous- it was planned for weeks, for months. I had meetings with Ben’s Chili Bowl and I built the composition over time. When you look at it at the end of day, people might say kudos to the guy who defaced it… but now the value of the mural has dropped.

What was your process for creating the mural?

It took seven days to paint back in 2012. There were originally 40 people that Ben’s Chili Bowl wanted on the side but I suggested they narrow it down. They decided on the four men they did because they were all people who were important to the restaurant. Donnie Simpson recorded a radio broadcast inside Ben’s. Bill Cosby is a family friend and contributed to the restaurant.

It’s important to think about the other parts of the mural, and how the defacement affects them. Because it’s across the street from the Metro stop I put the green and yellow lines to show movement. And they wanted the ketchup and mustard colors because of their business. They have yellow and red on the front of the location as well. I was assisted by youth that were aspiring artists. So they are also the victims when someone goes and defaces it. They helped with painting the background and they learned from the experience. They could say, I helped paint that. So to deface it- it’s also taking away the value of their effort that they put into the mural. Taking things into your own hands is not always the best thing to do.

Do you have anything to say to the street artist who took credit for defacing the mural?

To deface someone else’s work, over something someone on the mural did, and not take it up with the owners, that is also a crime, just like the crime you’re protesting. When you deface it you’re lowering the value of the mural and lowering the value of the work. It’s not funny; you’re not making a statement. It’s a lesson to all of us- we might end up hurting each other more than we realize.

Did you remove the sticker from the mural?

It was removed by my friend, a street artist named Jazi Rock, who I’ve worked with before. I’m grateful to him for doing that. He understood that that was disrespectful to the artist. I feel like the media I’ve seen covering this, in a way, they’re sort of praising the person who did this. But Jazi Rock, he removed the sticker voluntarily. He understood as another street artist that it was wrong to deface the work. It goes past disrespecting Cosby to disrespecting someone’s work and someone’s property.

You paint commissioned murals now, but did you ever create illegal street art like what was done to your mural?

I never did illegal street art. I grew up in Nigeria. The most illegal graffiti we did was scribbling on the chalkboard after class. We would take chalk and smear it all over the boards. Since I came here I have been doing commissioned work. It’s not illegal- it caters to the community. I want to bring people together. I don’t want to separate. I would never purposely go over a piece unless I was commissioned by the property owner who has the right to go over something on their property.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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