Up against a wall

A bearded man wearing a multi-colored poncho and a yellow derby drizzled with red paint stands out in a crowd, even on South Street. So it was not surprising when a man standing on a balcony three stories above the street recognized Isaiah Zagar and shouted down to him.

Zagar, the city’s best-known mosaic artist, was standing near the intersection of Eighth and South streets, looking mournfully at the blank walls of the building on the southwest corner.

Normally, no blank wall is safe from Zagar and his vivid patterns of shattered tiles. Perhaps that is why the man on the balcony sounded hopeful when he asked if the artist was designing something new for the space.

But Zagar could only look, not touch. He was there to pay his respects to what had been entombed beneath the fresh stucco applied to the wall last week — a small mosaic he installed, as well as a larger one done by another local artist, Mike Smash.

The change is evidence of the vulnerability of mosaics and other public artwork, a phenomenon Zagar believes is the result of the gentrification of the area surrounding South Street.

"Our neighborhood is so expensive now," he said, "and the people that are moving in feel because they have paid huge amounts of dollars for something … that they don’t have to care about the outside of the building."

Zagar, 63, has created about 80 mosaics citywide — mostly for free — in the past 35 years. Sixty of the works are around South Street, including the elaborate work in the lot behind his studio at 1020 South.

"That is why this little piece was very important," he said, "because the next big thing to happen is that lot gets bulldozed."

It is a legitimate concern. Zagar does not own the lot; in fact, it has been for sale for 10 years. The artist has an agreement with the real-estate company selling the property that permits him to use the space until the property is purchased. Zagar has been creating mosaics there since 1994.

The mosaics recently buried at Eighth and South streets met their fate after the building was sold last month to the owner of South Cleaner, formerly on the 700 block.

The store used to be a candle shop called Hot Wax. Smash — an up-and-coming artist who installed the mosaic mural at the Hawthorne Cultural Center and is working on another near 12th Street and Washington Avenue, both part of the city’s Mural Arts Program — convinced the owners of Hot Wax to let him work on their walls in 1997.

During a two-year span, Smash tiled the property’s entire South Street side, most of the wall facing Eighth Street and a portion of the alley behind the building. Zagar contributed by completing a small portion of the Eighth Street side. He and some of his students also did a mural on a wall of a building adjoining the candle shop. That portion of the artwork remains intact.

To Zagar, the size of the work is not as much of an issue as the sentimental value. The mosaic included clay tiles engraved with a short story he had written in memory of his father.

It angers him that "somebody who wouldn’t even think to read that story buried it," he said. Zagar wished the new owner could have contacted him and let him retrieve the pieces with the story before cementing them over.

Zagar said he had attempted to contact the owner of the dry cleaner through his assistant Allison Weiss — who first discovered the mural was being covered up last Tuesday. They were unsuccessful.

The Review contacted the owner of South Cleaners, Sun Yun, at another shop she owns near Fifth and Pine streets.

Contrary to a rumor that Yun had been bullied to cover up the mosaic by area residents who thought it was an eyesore, she explained it was purely a business decision.

The artwork incorporated the name of the former store, Hot Wax, and several depictions of burning candles. Yun felt if the mosaic remained intact, customers would not know her store was actually a dry cleaner.

"That picture was a very beautiful picture. Yes, it is artwork," Yun said. "Without [the advertisement for] Hot Wax and all of the candles and everything, I would leave it."

Interestingly, Zagar is familiar with the rights of building owners to change the exterior of their property on a whim. He makes his living as a landlord and, for years, has owned several rental properties around South Street. The walls of each of his buildings are decorated with mosaics.

Smash, 28, who lives near 15th and Fitzwater streets, initially took a more pragmatic approach to the covered mural.

"You got to take it on the chin sometimes," he said.

He also suggested that the stucco preserved his mosaic, like a "time capsule," before finally admitting it did bother him that the piece had been destroyed.

"A lot of people are quick to complain about things that they know are going to happen eventually," he said, "but what are you going to do? The only way I can stop it is to go buy a building. That way, they can’t take it from me."

For preservation’s sake, Smash said he now mounts some of his mosaics on large boards that are bolted to the wall and can be removed in pieces. And the work he does through the Mural Arts Program is protected by the city, although still not completely safe, he said.

Zagar and his assistant Weiss are gearing up to fight for public art and artists. Weiss contacted the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts following the incident at Eighth and South. She is investigating whether mosaic should be protected by the state’s Fine Arts Preservation Act, which prevents anyone but the artist from altering or destroying his work.

More important than the law, Zagar said, is public opinion. People must be vocal in their opposition to the destruction of artwork, like mosaics, otherwise nothing will change, he said.

"It is not only me and my egocentricness of my work," Zagar said. "It is about Philadelphia heritage."