Anti-Bush billboard causing turmoil

What started as a series of political statements by local billboard artists has expanded into a controversy involving the Federal Election Commission and sparked a debate on the nature of politics, art and the use of property. The current incarnation of the politically charged billboard series visible from the freeway

A lightning rod of the controversy is a sign featuring a grinning image of George W. Bush offering the thumbs-up with the words "Dang, it feels good to be a gangsterer!" printed above. The current billboard on the side of a large brick building at 922 Massachusetts Ave. is clearly visible from the I-65/I-70 freeway interchange.

Donna Yarema, owner of Teapots N Treasures, on the first floor of the building, said that the political signs have come at a great cost to her business and personal safety.

"We had people coming in that were trying to punch me and my daughter out," Yarema said. "By the time they get off the freeway and get through the front door they're unreasonable. I had customers that had to stand between the person coming in the door and me to keep me from being slugged! A woman from one of the neighborhood associations told me, 'You are a disgrace to the neighborhood.' That's how we lived after Sept. 1, after the first poster went up on the side of the building. We aren't getting it like we were, but now people just aren't shopping."

Yarema said she was most upset at the lack of response from the building's owner, Tom Battista, when she told him the signs were hurting her business.

"I told him this was his battle, not mine," Yarema said. "I had three vendors that wanted to move out the minute they saw the poster go up. I'm a brand new business. I don't need this. We were doing pretty well until the signs went up. Our regular customers prior to Sept. 1 have told me that they won't come shopping here. Because they don't want people to know that they're associated with this sign, with this building."

Battista said the billboards are part of a billboard art group his daughter helped form called Your Art Here, and that he donated space on two of his Massachusetts Avenue properties as platforms for their art.

"I'm involved in the art program in Mass. Ave.," Battista said. "This to me is an extension of that. It's another way to get a different kind of art in Mass. Ave., to help revitalize downtown."

Your Art Here's billboards have showcased a variety of different themes in the last few years, including "Flatland: Billboards at the Crossroads of America" and the "Billboard Generation" series of work by young artists. The politically-themed billboards began running in September as part of the "Patriotic Art Series."

Complaints from other area residents - not Yarema - brought the matter to the attention of the city and eventually the Federal Election Commission.

"When the city called me I felt like I was going to the principal's office in high school," Battista said. "There were these three people from code enforcement who were sitting there trying to tell me what art was. They found out that I had permits for these, so they're totally permissible and everything. When they threatened jail to me it was just kind of fun. I could only think of 'Alice's Restaurant,' that I would go to jail for these art pieces on the side of a building."

Battista said he was mystified by Yarema's assertion that the signs were hurting her business and leading to threats.

"That's what she says, but that's insane, that someone will or will not shop at her building because of the sign there. How do they know it's even hers? I just find that totally ludicrous that she'd think it was ruining her business," Battista said. "I don't understand that, and if those people want to leave, I can't understand it, is all I can tell you. [With regards to the threats] I told her, 'Call the police. This is not 1930s Germany where the brownshirts are going to come around and threaten people. They can't do that. This is America. This is a free country."

Owen Mundy, co-founder of Your Art Here, said that they were contacted by the Federal Election Commission on Nov. 1 and informed that the FEC had received a complaint that they might have engaged in illegal electioneering. The group sent a response Nov. 14, and has heard nothing back yet.

"We basically said that since we're a non-profit organization we're not concerned with trying to sway votes, and on top of that these are art pieces," Mundy said. "This art series was funded by private individuals. We weren't out there trying to change people's minds. We were just exercising our free speech."

Mundy said that Your Art Here, which is organized as a non-profit organization in the state of Indiana in order to protect themselves on a legal level, has received a largely positive set of responses. He said that they are aware of only a single complaint to the FEC.

"Essentially what it boils down to is that someone tried to take away our freedom of speech because he didn't like what we were saying," Mundy said.

Battista said that the "Gangsterer" sign - a take on the Geto Boys rap song "Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" - stayed up longer after the election because it was taller and harder to move, but that it will be replaced soon.

In the meantime, Yarema said it's taught her an important lesson about the politics of passion.

"You wouldn't think this would be such a big deal and incite such a reaction in people, but we've learned the hard way that's not the case," Yarema said.