Earlier this week, Linda Cheung, leader of the environmental nonprofit Before It's Too Late, began receiving disturbing messages on social media. One of the group's projects, a mural in Wynwood, had been defaced.
"Someone vandalized it badly," says Cheung, reached by New Times over the phone. “My guess is somebody threw balloons full of paint across both sides.”
The mural, painted by Miami artist Reinier Gamboa as part of the project "Anthropocene Extinction," occupies prominent wall space on NW Third Avenue at 25th Street in the arts district. Its beautiful, realistic depictions of Florida animals such as manatees, panthers, and great blue herons are now marred by huge splatters of black paint across both sides and large tags reading "ZOE."
Unveiled in January, the mural includes an augmented-reality (AR) component that aims to raise awareness of the toll humans are exacting on ecosystems in Florida and beyond. A specially designed smartphone app allowed spectators to view videos about each animal and learn more about what scientists say is an ongoing mass extinction caused by human activity.
Because of the vandalism, the work is now a loss and will be replaced before its time.
“If they hadn’t defaced it so badly we could’ve fixed it,” Cheung says. “We could not fix it without repainting the whole thing. It took us a month and a half to paint.”
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The loss of the mural is a shame. But it's not the end of the road for Before It's Too Late, which Cheung says has become a sort of studio combining art, AR technology, and activism. Next month, the group will unveil a project in North Miami's Liberty Gardens Park discussing pollinator plants and animals. They're also working with a wine producer that plants wildflowers to help the declining worldwide bee population.
Cheung doesn't know who defaced the mural, but she has her suspicions. Due to the nature of the vandalism — the "ZOE" tags might refer to the notorious Haitian street gang Zoe Pound and don't bear evidence of "respectful" tagging usually seen among graffiti artists — she doesn't suspect anyone in the Miami street art community and believes it to have been a random group of "wannabe gangster kids."
Although Cheung says the building's owner, a veterinarian, will look to replace the mural, she thinks the work should stay up in its damaged state for as long as possible. In effect, she says, the destruction of this beautiful depiction of wildlife by human hands has become “a reflection of the issue we’re trying to raise awareness of”: the mass extinction of life on Earth caused by the selfish acts of humankind.
“We want this up for as long as they’re willing to keep it up,” she says. “The true art that’s being destroyed is the loss of nature.”