The Surfing Madonna – Cultural Phenomenon or Graffiti?

Every weekend I drive through the sleepy surf town of Encinitas, California. Amidst the cafes and bike riders lies a criminal work of art. The Surfing Madonna statue, as it has come to be known, in Encinitas is a controversial artwork that combines the image of the Virgin de Guadelupe with the essence of Southern California surfing culture. If you blink, it’s easy to miss this wonderful work of art as you drive by the corner of Encinitas Boulevard and Highway 101. It’s a mosaic that encompasses the Virgin Mary, in all her glory, shredding a wave, along with the message “Save The Ocean”. It’s a beautiful work of art, we see the Virgin Mary framed within a golden mandorla with her hands folded in prayer, a classical and Bibilical artistic image. However, her robe is blown up by the California sea breeze as she elegantly rides the face of a cobalt wave.

Mark Patterson was the creator of this work, and with his friend Bob Nichols, they disguised themselves as construction workers in order to illegally erect the Save the Ocean mosaic, or the Surfing Madonna as locals have come to know it. They put the sculpture up in broad daylight in 2011, originally erected under the train bridge on Encinitas Boulevard. As the public passed them by with hardly any notice, they put up this work. Even after firefighters asked why they were there, they told them they were simply there to help with maintenance regarding the bridge, and they were left alone to finish putting up the Madonna.

After being unveiled, the sculpture elicited much controversy. Many found the artwork both clever and beautiful, an interesting, modern twist on the thousand of classical Virgin Mary artworks that have been created for millenia. However, many people of strong Catholic or Christian faith found the artwork incredibly insulting, a demeaning portrayal of the mother of Jesus Christ. Many city officials had problems with the artwork as well due to its legality.

After its creation, the city of Encinitas deemed the Surfing Madonna as graffiti due to its illegal installation. And Mark Patterson, the creator of the work, was fined $500 and had to pay $6000 to have the work removed. The city council had voted to have the work deemed as graffiti, however much of the Encinitas community supported the installation of the art. They supported it so strongly that the next year two of those city council members were voted out of office. The work was reclaimed by Patterson and later reinstalled across the street in the Moonlight Plaza shopping center, still on display for the public to see.

The installation and subsequent removal of the Surfing Madonna inspired the creator Mark Patterson to start a non-profit organization, “Surfing Madonna Oceans Project”, which has raised over $100,000. The Surfing Madonna Oceans Project (SMOP) works to protect coastlines as well as help those with disabilites ride waves.

The story of this artwork leads to questions regarding criminality. Even though the artwork was technically graffiti, the work positively affected many people, even though some disagreed with it’s icons. The artwork also sponsored the creation of a non-profit which has helped those who hadn’t originally been affected by the artwork. Is it right to call an artwork criminal if its existence has helped so many?

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Mariijke van der Geer

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