Siding with Bettie
Despite City Scrutiny, Local Homeowner Stands by Mural
Pinup icon Bettie Page is perched above Interstate 5 in black panties and thigh-highs, a rain gutter on the eaves discreetly censoring her bosoms. Striking a pose on the side of Roosevelt-area resident Chris Brugos's house, the mural smirks down at thousands of freeway drivers every day. Brugos has received dozens of compliments on the mural since it was painted in mid-August, with strangers stopping by his house once or twice a week to sing its praises. The house also appeared on both KING 5 and KOMO News. Exactly zero people have stopped by to complain—but in late September, Brugos found a notice of complaint from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) taped to his door. Someone called the city to report graffiti on the side of Brugos's house, the note said, and if it wasn't cleaned up within 10 days, Brugos would be liable for fines of up to $100 per day.
Brugos called the city and told SPU official Daniel Sims that the scantily clad woman painted on the side of his home was not a public nuisance, but a work of art. "The difference between art and graffiti is permission," explains Anthony Matlock of SPU. Since Brugos commissioned Bettie Page for the side of his house, the mural isn't vandalism—it's art. Brugos says Sims took his clarification and told him, "If it's not graffiti, we'll just pass the complaint on [to another city department]." Last week, another notice arrived—this one for graffiti on Brugos's fence, which was, in fact, actual graffiti that he quickly cleaned up. Brugos thinks the two complaints, one following after the first was rebuffed, reveal that someone is bothered by the mural and wants to whiteout Bettie Page. Since SPU keeps all complaints anonymous, he has no idea who that someone could be.
Initially, it seems the people most likely to be offended by the mural are Brugos's next-door neighbors: A Mormon church stands directly adjacent to Brugos's painted home. The mural faces a secondary driveway of the church, so if churchgoers want to enter through the back door, they have to drive past the giant burlesque figure first. The church didn't officially complain, however, and most members don't seem to have a problem with the morally questionable mural. "That's their right," says Jerry Watt, a member of the church who also answers its phone. "It's perhaps not something a member of our church would put up, but they can do what they want." Watt says he hasn't heard any grumbling in the pews about Bettie Page. "Probably most people are aware of it, but live and let live."
While the anonymous complaint has disappeared into the city bureaucracy for now, it could threaten the painting if it lands on solid legal ground in another department. John Green, 32, the artistic culprit who painted the mural for Brugos's 30th birthday, is ready to fight the citizen complaint. "My first response was, 'I'm going to lawyer up; Greg Nickels is not going to do this to me,'" says Green. "It is not a strip club, it's a painting." Brugos is less hostile toward the city. "The city is just following up on complaints, as it should," he says. Though he adds, "If the city does come back and say it's got to go because it's offensive, I think that might be worth fighting, because there are so many sexy billboards and ads and stuff."
Brugos became a Bettie Page fan as a teenager, when some of his favorite comic-book artists brought the then-obscure pinup girl into the mainstream. "It's clever and fun," he says. "It's like a tattoo for my house." Green, a graphic designer, created the mural on a computer, then projected the image onto Burgos's vinyl siding, taking 15 hours to trace the image with masking tape before spraying the outline with latex paint. "It was an attempt to still be tasteful without going over the top," he says. "I didn't think that was going to be a problem. We did use the eaves to effect in there."