Alvaro Garcia was sitting with his wife, Helen, in their Vallejo home on the morning of Sept. 9, drinking coffee as the couple prepared to head off to work. Mid-conversation, Helen, who had been absentmindedly thumbing through news on her phone, went quiet. A headline caught her eye.
"Isn’t this your mural?" she asked her husband. Eyes wide, she handed her phone over to Garcia, urging him to take a look.
A headline on the web page of the Vallejo Times-Herald, the local newspaper, read: "Painted over mural in downtown Vallejo causes anger, sadness." The article was about the repainting of a mural on the side of a building at 401 Georgia Street. Garcia, a high school Spanish teacher and artist, completed the large-scale artwork over the course of four months in 2012.
Gobsmacked, the muralist scanned the news article, trying to piece together what happened, who painted over it, and why he hadn’t been notified.
"I remember being shocked," Garcia said. "I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, who would do that, knowing what the mural was about? Without telling me?"
He quickly learned that Paramount Pictures, in town shooting the Transformers spin-off "Bumblebee," had gotten permission from the owner of the building to paint over the mural, with the promise that necessary repairs would be done in exchange. In a matter of hours, the bright work covered in saturated reds and blues was totally obscured by a thick layer of beige paint.
Aside from the building owner, no one involved in the mural’s creation was notified in advance.
It wasn’t just Garcia who was caught off guard by the development. Community outrage came fast and furious. The city’s mayor, Bob Sampayan, said he "gasped" when he first found out what happened. Champaygne Tafoya, whose son died tragically and was one of the young people depicted in the mural, scrambled to Georgia street during her lunch break to see if the rumors were true.
"It felt like losing a piece of him again," she said. "I broke down, and I cried. When they put the mural up, I thought he would be there forever."
Titled "Vallejo Rising," the mural was commissioned shortly after the city had filed for bankruptcy, at what was arguably the nadir of civic pride. Its meanings were myriad; at once, it was about the city coming to grips with its embattled past and keeping hope alive for a more prosperous future.
Speaking with evident pride, Garcia referred to his work as "diamond with many facets," about his city struggling to "rise up from the ashes." In the center of the wall, he painstakingly drew a massive Lotus flower — flora known for blooming even in untenable conditions. Just above that was a fiery, orange Phoenix, gearing up to spread its wings. Off to the right side were beloved community members who died at an early age, including a former student of Garcia's.
Over the next few weeks, Paramount, which declined to comment for this story, would try to mitigate the damage. The studio took great lengths to apologize to Tafoya specifically, even arranging for her children to visit the set to take photos as filming wrapped. Garcia says he tagged along and met briefly with the crew.
Sampayan said he talked with Paramount Pictures and described the studio’s remorse as authentic. They are, he said, "good neighbors."
"They’ve said ‘yes, we erred, it’s our fault, we feel really bad, and we’ll pay for it," Sampayan said. "I’ve talked to everyone all the way up to the executive director, and everyone has said they’ll make good on this."
But three weeks out, with shooting wrapped up, Garcia feels that apologies and agreements for a new mural haven’t been enough. He says Paramount never reached out to him directly and didn’t give him space to explain to producers what the crew had painted over — a conversation he admitted would be lengthy. But good neighbors, he said, would take those steps.
He also hasn’t received any guarantees that he will be selected to design the replacement mural, should it ever come to fruition.
Frankly, he says, he has was sidestepped in the conversation, while Paramount focused on superficial photo ops and damage control, and news media focused on the account of Tafoya.
"I feel like my mural was hijacked," he said. "People have been focusing on one aspect of it, without looking at the broader picture of what that mural represents in our city's history."
And, as more film crews descend on Vallejo, he is left wondering what will become of the city he calls home. It's hard for him to ignore the irony of a visiting Hollywood film crew painting over a mural about maintaining cultural heritage and local pride.
"The disappointment, the frustration, and the anger have not gone away," he said. "What about my intellectual property? What about the memory of the people I walked alongside, who entrusted me to tell their stories? What about a town that entrusted me to do it in a dignified manner?"
There are currently no guidelines in the city’s municipal code that specifically address public art in relation to film or television production. However, Sampayan said that the city is committed to safeguarding cultural heritage and credits the mural fiasco with jump-starting a conversation about protecting public art. In addition to finding a new place for a mural, he is directing city staff to come up with more rigorous stipulations for visiting film crews.
"This is brand new for us," Sampayan said, referring to Hollywood’s growing interest in Vallejo. "We’re going to be looking at the whole gamut."
For Garcia, a consolation has been the community support. He said having his work appreciated and understood, even in hindsight, is a gift. He remembers painting the mural in the empty downtown area late at night, wishing that it would bring hope to a city that, at the time, seemingly had very little of it. Times are better now, he said. If he can paint a new mural, he would want it to illustrate that growth.
"It has been an incredibly validating experience to realize that the community felt that way," he said. "Every artist wants to have the opportunity to create something this large, but they also wish, more than anything else, to endow it with emotions that allow it to connect with the community in a powerful way."
"I feel like I did that," he continued.
But he’s still waiting for a call from Paramount.