Embarrassed California highway officials have apologized for classifying as graffiti—and then painting over—a vast American flag mural created to honor 9/11 victims. But the fate of a second flag mural, painted in defiance at the same location, remains unclear.
The flap involves the fates of two American flags painted on a steep concrete slab high above California’s Interstate 680.
Friends Eric Noda, R.J. Waldron and Tom Hanley painted the first flag, 26 by 50 feet, on Sept. 24, 2001, “as a tribute to those lost in the 9/11 attack,” Noda said in an interview this week. “We wanted to show our support for the families involved and the people who gave so much for the citizens of the U.S.”
Although not previously sanctioned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the flag mural remained undisturbed without incident for years.
That ended June 30, when Caltrans abruptly declared that the flag was unauthorized graffiti and crews repainted the entire slab gray.
“We don't allow graffiti on state property. No matter what kind of graffiti it is, we don't show favoritism,” Caltrans spokesman Allyn Amsk told reporters.
The agency said it had not acted earlier because it had learned only recently that the flag was on state property—a claim that drew widespread doubt.
The obliteration of the flag just days before July 4 ignited public outrage and triggered a reprimand by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called the mural patriotic and meaningful.
To paint over the flag “only days before we celebrate our independence and reflect on the freedoms we are lucky enough to enjoy in America is unconscionable," the governor said in a statement. “I extend my apologies to the artists whose mural inspired drivers along 680 for over eight and a half years.”
A new Facebook group, “Bring back the Sunol Grade American Flag,” was immediately formed to try to get the flag repainted. The group has drawn many supporters.
Amsk, however, said that if the artists wanted to repaint the flag, they would have to apply for a permit first.
But that policy didn’t fly with two other area men, who decided—without even knowing one another and without state approval—to paint a similar mural at that location in time for the Fourth of July.
Former contractor James Gallagher says he was just getting started on the mural when another man, Steve Giordano, came along.
“I was snapping chalk lines when Steve showed up and asked if I needed any help. He was doing a recon with plans to come back later and paint it,” Gallagher said.
Giordano told sfgate.com that he had driven 100 miles to scope out the site. “They desecrated a memorial for 9/11. It upset me so bad,” Giordano told the web site. "I felt strongly to do something about it.”
Together, Giordano and Gallagher worked 12 hours straight—the last four “by flashlight,” says Gallagher—to finish the job at 1:30 a.m. on July 4.
With the new mural presenting an open challenge to Caltrans, the standoff continued until Tuesday, when the agency issued a statement apologizing for its actions. However, the carefully worded statement indicated that the flag flap may not yet be over.
“Caltrans regrets the removal of the (first) flag mural,” said agency spokesman Matt Rocco. But he added: “The department will work with the artists and local community to discuss the department's current permitting process for transportation art with the goal of placing another mural at a suitable location.”
The new mural's fate will be “part of the conversation that will take place this week” at a meeting with the original and new artists, Rocco said.
Though beaten to the punch on repainting their creation, the original artists are happy that the flag has returned.
“The painters who restored the flag had good intentions,” says Noda. “They brought the flag back to its original glory. I think it looks beautiful …. We started this to bring the flag back to the Sunol Grade, and it has for now been accomplished.”