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A 'Surfing Madonna' appears in San Diego

May 9, 2011 |  1:14 pm

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Where did she come from? Who made her? Will the city decide to keep her around?

Residents of a laid-back beach community in San Diego County have been gathering day after day before a striking mosaic mural that appeared unannounced on a bridge wall, guerrilla-style, without proper approval. They are curious and concerned. The "Surfing Madonna," as locals have dubbed her, is in danger of being removed by the city of Encinitas.

The mural is a 12-foot-tall representation of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary image believed to have miraculously appeared before an Indian peasant named Juan Diego in 1531 in Mexico City. Guadalupe has been called the "Empress of the Americas," the patron saint of Mexico, and the "unofficial flag of Mexicans." Her image has been appropriated across popular culture and national and religious lines, and is considered a special icon for Southern California as well.

In the Encinitas mural, the Virgin Mary figure appears in her familiar flowing green robe, with her famous downward-cast eyes and slight smile. But this being Southern California, Guadalupe here is riding a white surfboard, with the image's traditional moon-bearing cherub depicted on the board's deck, as if navigating down Encinitas Boulevard and onto the breaks at Moonlight State Beach.

"Save the ocean," reads a message running down the mural's left side, in bright glass pepples.

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No artist or group of artists has come forward to claim responsibility for putting up the mural, and the city says allowing it to stay would set a precedent for unapproved public art, such as graffiti. On Saturday, more admirers streamed past the "Surfing Madonna," posing for photos and gingerly touching the intricate mosaics -- clearly the work of very skilled artists.

Dianne Fingal, 64, said she had heard nothing about the artwork in the news and decided to visit with three friends after catching a glimpse of the "Surfing Madonna" while driving past.

"We hope that it does" get approval to stay, Fingal said. "We're into mosaics, so we appreciate the work, especially the face and hands. We're concerned someone could deface it."

"What about all the graffiti they leave up?" she added.

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Since the mural appeared, admirers haven't stopped visiting, with many lingering to chat with strangers on the sidewalk despite the proximity to the fast-moving street traffic.

"It's a miracle, like a donation," one resident remarked on Saturday, a sunny and bright afternoon. She declined to be named. "We should feel lucky!"

A woman standing nearby suggested that flowers or candles be placed at the image's feet, as though it were an altar. La Plaza asked the woman if she felt the "Surfing Madonna" was an inappropriate use of a sacred image.

"You mean the sacred image of surfing?" she replied wryly.

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The "Surfing Madonna" was mounted in six panels over Easter weekend by a group of people reportedly dressed as construction workers. Experts have estimated in press reports that the mural is worth at least $1,000 in materials alone, and looks to have taken about 100 hours to create.

Despite accolades from residents and others -- an online poll found more than 90% of respondents in favor of keeping the mural, compared with nearly 10% opposed -- the city of Encinitas appears poised to remove the "Surfing Madonna" from its unauthorized perch.

At the April 27 City Council meeting, residents took to the microphone during the public-comment period to urge the city to find a way to keep the mural. But the North County Times reported that an unnamed city official had already decided that the "mosaic must go." One city official has reportedly received complaints over the mural's religious subject matter.

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The city has retained a conservancy firm to examine and evaluate the mural, including the possibility of removing it without causing much damage, Assistant City Manager Richard Phillips said in an interview Monday. The city will wait for the firm's final report before taking action, he said.

"The city does have existing art policy to receive gifts or donations, and the mural was done without any authorization, so it technically is graffiti," Phillips said. "In the city's graffiti ordinance, it's [defined as] any type of attachment that was done without the property owner's permission. And we've confirmed that with the city attorney."

"There's no judgment about whether it's good art or bad art, or whether it's art or not," the official added.

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Encinitas is a typically artsy Southern California beach town. The main strip is dotted with boutiques, quaint restaurants and several contemporary-art galleries. (One resident interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune described the "Surfing Madonna" as "so Encinitas.")

Ron Lenc, a 54-year-old local art teacher, said rumors have been circulating in the Encinitas artist community about the identity of the creators of "Surfing Madonna." He was visiting the mural on Saturday and said the craftsmanship of the work is remarkable.

"Sometimes it's better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission," Lenc said.

"That's what Banksy said," a teenager nearby chimed in.

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-- Daniel Hernandez in San Diego

Photos: Daniel Hernandez / La Plaza / Los Angeles Times

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