Dick Nelson stands next to the artwork on his business (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press).
Hazy lines separating the definitions of murals and signs have put some downtown Johnson City businesses at odds with the codes enforcement office.
Dick Nelson, owner of Main Street’s Nelson Fine Art Center, said he was notified this week by the office that the graffiti-style painting on the rear of his building was in violation of the section of code governing signage, and he was advised to seek a sign permit and a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Zoning Commission.
The brightly colored, stylized letters of the painting were put there more than three years ago by local artist Chris Witkowski, an organizer of the Blue Plum’s annual Urban Art Throwdown.
They spell out “Nelson Fine Art,” but Nelson said he considers the painting more of a mural than a sign.
“My point is mainly that it’s a piece of art,” Nelson said Thursday. “If I’d wanted to have a sign advertising my business, I’d have used something with a legible font.
“Most people don’t even realize it says anything unless they’re told. Every week I see people back there posing in front of it, with their car, kids on skateboards, dressed up for proms or dances, all getting their pictures taken. To them and everyone else, it’s just a cool unique painting that brightens up an otherwise drab back row of buildings.”
The painting won’t earn approval for a sign permit. At more than 200 square feet, it’s double the size allowed for wall-mounted signs downtown.
Senior Planner Angie Charles says it doesn’t conform to the definition of a mural, either.
According to city sign regulations, a mural is “A graphic display that covers all or a portion of a wall and depicts a scene or event of natural, social, cultural, or historic significances, including, but not limited to painting, fresco or mosaic. It shall not include any on or off-premises advertising.”
A few blocks away, hydroponic equipment supplier Downtown Farming was also informed the painting on the side of its building was not in compliance.
Painted by the same artist commissioned by Nelson, the letters of the business’ name stretch horizontally along the Buffalo Street facing wall surrounded by vines and flower blossoms.
Downtown Farming’s owner, Yancey Grimmett, said he received notice in June advising him the painting was not properly permitted for signage.
“We’re trying to realistically bring this whole corner up a notch,” he said. If you look at this building before I got it, compared to the way it is now, for someone to complain is just petty. The old concrete it’s covering was as ugly as can be and it had graffiti on it already, so we decided we would commission a local artist who had done work for the city.”
Like at Nelson’s, Charles said Grimmett’s sign exceeds the size allowed by code.
One at Tupelo Honey, in the former CC&O Railroad Depot, was not permitted, but met the size requirements. Charles said the business submitted an application to have its sign approved.
Charles said the interest in the wall paintings was sparked by a complaint and posts to social media networking site Facebook.
The businesses contacted by her department weren’t issued citations, but their owners were advised of the proper sign permitting procedure.
Nelson said, at the moment, he’s not sure what he’ll do. He’s doubtful the Historic Zoning Commission would approve a letter-free mural on the brick, after his request to paint one earlier was denied, so he has contacted companies who perform sand blasting.
At Downtown Farming, Grimmett said he plans to appeal the advisement.
He’s worried that a cleaning crew would cause additional damage to the already crumbling brick on his building’s side.
“It’s a really frustrating feeling,” he said. “I honestly just don’t know what to do at this point.”
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