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Rochester's infamous 'Sleeping Bears' mural vandalized


A mural by Belgian artist ROA, painted in 2012 for the inaugural Wall/Therapy festival, has been defaced by an unknown vandal. - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • A mural by Belgian artist ROA, painted in 2012 for the inaugural Wall/Therapy festival, has been defaced by an unknown vandal.

When it was installed on St. Paul Street nine years ago, a mural of two sleeping bears was maligned from the start by opponents who saw a lewd act in its imagery.

Sometime in the past week, someone sprayed gray paint on the wall, mostly hitting the bears’ faces, claws, and backsides.

The mural, “Sleeping Bears,” depicts two dozing North American brown bears and was painted by the Belgian artist ROA in July 2012 as part of the inaugural Wall\Therapy festival.

It is on a windowless side of a building owned by St. Paul Properties LLC, facing the parking lot of World Wide News.

ROA’s style is stark. After blocking out the general shape of the animals with white and black paint, he put in the fine details of fur, claws, teeth, and other anatomy with heavy black lines of spray paint.

“He is deeply rooted in animal activism, which is one of the reasons we wanted to work with him,” said Wall\Therapy Lead Curator Erich Lehman.

ROA has spent more than a decade traveling the world, painting illustrative images of animals, mostly those native to the places in which he is painting, that in some way interact with the urban terrain.

In the case of the sleeping bears, the bottom bear appears to be resting its head on a security gate, while the top bear is oriented the other way, resting its chin on the bottom bear’s knees.

ROA's mural, "Sleeping Bears," shortly after completion in 2012. - PHOTO COURTESY WALL/THERAPY
  • ROA's mural, "Sleeping Bears," shortly after completion in 2012.
People began voicing their ire about the painting before ROA was even finished with the piece.

Some critics, apparently unfamiliar with the anatomy of bears, insisted that the long-snouted animals were rats. Others saw a sexual act in the positioning of their bodies. Before long, the mural was being referred to as the “69-ing rats” online and in conversation and calls for its removal were being made.

At the time, a local artist who lived across the street in the Warner Lofts with a window facing the mural, said he refused to open the shades.

“The mural was intended to bring a spot of warmth and fuzziness, and nature and outdoors to central downtown,” Lehman said. “But it was met with a lot of confusion and at times anger, because the animals were mistaken for rats, even though they do not have giant segmented tails that rats have.”

And the perceived sexual nature of the mural sealed its fate as an “eyesore” and “indecent.”

“This was the first real introduction of murals of this scale into Rochester,” Lehman said. “So there were just a lot of misconceptions as people just weren't used to this or ready for it at the time. This confusion about what it was led to a lot of rancor and venom that were, in my opinion, really undeserved for a big mural about two soft, cuddly bears sleeping.”

But, Lehman added, art is subjective, and oftentimes people just see what they want to see.

“And there was no changing their minds,” he said. “But the amount of conversations and dialogue that we were having with people who wouldn't normally talk together — you know, that's totally worth the price of admission.”

Closing in on 10 years old, the weathered mural already showed signs of wear. Paint had peeled or chipped in some areas, revealing the off-white wall beneath the layers.

Now, those who objected to the mural in the first place and called for its removal might get what they wanted.

ROA did not respond to inquires from CITY seeking comment.  But Wall\Therapy founder Ian Wilson said that the artist is well-accustomed to the transient nature of street art.

“Knowing ROA, I doubt the vandalism of his piece would elicit any measurable emotional response,” Wilson said.

Lehman added: “He makes art for the moment, and perhaps the moment has, unfortunately, passed for this specific piece."

But as word spread about the defacement, fans of the mural expressed regret online that it’s ruined.

“It's super unfortunate because we felt that mural still had some life in it,” Lehman said. “But, you know, as we've tried to tell folks from the beginning, art in the public is ephemeral. And sometimes it does just have a finite life.”

Lehman said that Wall\Therapy organizers plan to invite ROA to create a new mural in the future, but at the moment are uncertain what they’ll do with the defaced painting.

"Because it's so fresh, there's no immediate solution for what will happen to it, but we'll figure it out,” he said. “I mean, our goal is always to beautify and inspire Rochester. So as sad as we are, it's an opportunity to update and refresh and bring something new, whatever it's going to be.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at [email protected].