Howl of protest: Facing public pressure, Hermosa Beach Mural Project to remove poet Allen Ginsberg from work honoring counterculture
by Ryan McDonald
Until he began working on a commission for the Hermosa Beach Mural Project, artist Timothy Smith knew of “NAMBLA” only through its appearance in an episode of “South Park.” But over the past two weeks, as Smith painted under the eyes of passing pedestrians, and the likenesses of Miles Davis and Linda Ronstadt started to take shape on an alley wall off Pier Plaza, he began hearing the acronym again.
“NAMBLA” is short for the North American Man/Boy Love Association. It is, according to its website and supporters, “the primary voice testifying to the benevolent aspects of man/boy love” and “a beacon of moral support for all individuals who feel a natural love for boys.” But, according its vastly larger body of detractors, NAMBLA is an organization devoted to pederasty and child abuse, a criminal syndicate draping itself in the rhetoric of sexual liberation.
NAMBLA understandably maintains a low profile. (In the South Park episode, the character Eric Cartman, looking for more mature male friends, mistakenly joins the “North American Marlon Brando Look-Alikes.”) Smith came to learn about the organization the same way many people do, in the context of its most famous member: poet Allen Ginsberg.
Ginsberg, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, was a central figure of the Beats, the literary movement that also included novelists William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. From the late ‘40s through the early ‘60s, Ginsberg and others created a literature centered on freedom of expression in reaction to what they viewed as the stifling social conformity of the postwar United States. It was this period that drove Smith to propose including Ginsberg in his entry for the mural project’s latest offering, which is devoted to Hermosa’s bohemian and countercultural history. In the late ‘50s, Ginsberg read “Howl,” his famous poem lamenting “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” at the Insomniac, a cafe on Pier Avenue favored by beatniks and folk musicians, where people drank espresso and played chess into the wee small hours. (The Insomniac closed in 1963.)
The Beats’ devotion to personal freedom strongly influenced Hippie culture and the anti-war movement of the late ‘60s, and Ginsberg, who died in 1997, remained at the intersection of art and protest for the rest of his life. This included, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, his membership in, and advocacy for, NAMBLA. As Smith began working on the mural, complaints about Ginsberg’s inclusion began trickling in.
“I stopped by to see the progress of the new mural going up alongside Watermans near the Hermosa Pier and was surprised to see Allen Ginsberg being included in the images of Hermosa celebs. I know he was considered a Hip, Beat poet who read his work at the now gone Insomniac, but he was also a vocal advocate for Pedophilia. Why are we celebrating him?” read an Easy Reader letter to the editor from David Britton, which was received after last week’s print publication deadline.
The mural project board met and deliberated over what to do. They eventually decided Ginsberg had to go, and informed Smith of the decision. At first, Smith said he was “confused,” viewing Ginsberg as “an icon of the beats.” Then he got on the internet.
“I didn’t even know NAMBLA was a real thing,” Smith said. “But I did some research. And right in the middle of Ginsberg’s giant Wikipedia page, there’s two or three paragraphs on Ginsberg and NAMBLA.”
The decision on what to do with Ginsberg places Hermosa in the center of ongoing debates about freedom of expression, controversial speech, and a long line of other modified murals. Steve Izant, a member of the mural project’s board, described it as a “no-win situation.” He anticipated that the board would likely face criticism for “bending to the will of the mob,” and acknowledged that the bohemia and counterculture the mural is intended to celebrate were born from a comfort with controversy. But he said that the accusations leveled against Ginsberg were of a different sort, and embodied a community concern that the board simply could not ignore.
“We could defend him for marijuana use, for being anti-war, for being a Communist. But even though he has never been indicted or arrested for pedophilia, you can’t just defend him about that,” Izant said.
The controversy over Ginsberg owes something to the streak of success the mural project has enjoyed. Over its previous eight murals, the group has met with a level of support that is without parallel in a town as densely packed and feisty as Hermosa. The murals’ outsized presence in downtown has contributed to the frequently adopted but mistaken impression that the Hermosa Beach Mural Project is an extension of the city itself.
“Perhaps the committee responsible for the murals and our city officials to include the mayor, manager, new assistant manager and council would enlighten us regarding the choice of individuals depicted in the newest and yet to be completed mural. Was any research done regarding the selection? Especially Allen Ginsberg who, although talented, had a known penchant for pedophilia. Is it too much to ask for a little due diligence?” Michael Mellman wrote in another letter to the Easy Reader.
The only city involvement in the project comes each year when the Planning Commission confirms that the proposal from an artist chosen by the board is indeed a “mural” within the meaning of Hermosa’s municipal code, and therefore outside the limitations imposed by the city’s commercial signage ordinance. That decision typically occupies mere minutes of the commission’s time. There is no municipal approval of its content, and the mural project is a private group that relies on no public funding.
And yet it is impossible to ignore the level of imprimatur that the project’s murals carry. This is in part a reflection of the project’s board members, who include two former Hermosa mayors, past and present members of the city’s Planning Commission — the current members dutifully recuse themselves from the annual signage ordinance vote — and leaders of other civic groups. But the mural project’s success also means that it has become an authority on a topic that constantly vexes even the town’s elected officials: what it means to be Hermosan.
The Hermosa Beach Mural Project was born from a trip by longtime Hermosa resident Chuck Sheldon. Sheldon was visiting the Ventura County city of Santa Paula, a farming town known as the “Citrus Capital of the World.” While there, he came upon a series of murals capturing aspects of the city’s history and culture. Sheldon was struck by the way the murals gave the town a sense of place.
“I was flabbergasted that they could improve this town so much,” Sheldon said in a 2016 Easy Reader interview.
Sheldon and some of his friends got together to create a nonprofit. They are now close to accomplishing their goal of 10 murals in 10 years, after which board members say the project will dissolve itself. In past works, the group has honored Hermosa’s place in surfing, jazz, volleyball and more.
Despite the criticisms of carelessness over Ginsberg’s inclusion, selection of a theme, crafting the call for submissions, and working with the selected artist is a process marked by research and deliberation. For example, with the volleyball mural in 2016, the group dug in to Hermosa’s legacy of small beach tournaments, relying mostly on history passed down through word of mouth that distinguished, say, games at 19th Street from those at 22nd. It also has meant deciding what truly belongs in art intended to reflect the town. Last year, for the mural honoring punk rock and skateboarding, artist Daniel Inez initially planned to include the Minutemen among the acts featured in the painted show flyers that form part of the mural. But, in conversations with the artist, the board ultimately rejected the band because of the Minutemen’s firm affiliation with San Pedro.
The unveiling of the murals has become a civic event, one whose popularity confirms how successful the project has been at capturing Hermosa’s essence. Last year’s punk rock entry occupies a large vertical wall on a downtown parking structure, and centers on the former Hermosa Baptist church where Black Flag lived and practiced for a time. The Tuesday afternoon ceremony drew the largest crowd yet. In a speech before the unveiling, Pennywise frontman Jim Lindberg spoke of his amazement that punks, who not so long ago were menaced by cops and scorned by the rest of society, were now being embraced on a mural.
“But here we are today, and I can’t tell you how happy — and proud — I am that it’s them on this mural, and not some banker, or real estate developer, or hedge fund manager. Because it’s these people, along with the people playing jazz at the Lighthouse in the ‘50s, and the surfers and skaters, and the other so-called ‘delinquents’ who really represent the real soul of this city,” Lindberg said.
In the days following the first complaints about Ginsberg’s appearance on the mural, the mural board members began delving into the historical record of Ginsberg’s involvement in NAMBLA. Ginsberg is most publicly linked to the group through a 1994 essay, “Thoughts on NAMBLA,” in which he presents his membership, then more than a decade old, as “a defense of free speech.” The board examined this and other documents. They read about his past defense of free speech, and his criticism of the FBI investigating civil liberties groups. After what Smith said was nearly a week of discussion and investigation, they were unable to find a link to any criminal behavior, but nonetheless felt that NAMBLA’s negative reputation was too strong to ignore.
“I could find no record of anyone saying he had been assaulted by Ginsberg. As far as I could tell, he was never arrested, indicted or tried on those charges. But we also recognize that our murals are public art, and that this is a distasteful organization to most Americans,” Izant said.
Ginsberg scholars mostly support the politically motivated explanation of the poet’s involvement with NAMBLA. Bill Morgan, author of 2007’s “I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg,” wrote that Ginsberg’s decision to support NAMBLA outraged his friends in gay rights groups, but that Ginsberg, who was openly gay, was “intractable” on the subject. Ginsberg gave a benefit reading for the group in 1989, one of the few people who allowed his real name to be used.
“He was adamant in his conviction that this was merely another freedom of speech issue. To him, NAMBLA members should be free to speak their minds, like other fringe groups such as the American Nazi Party or the Flat World Society,” Morgan wrote. “Dharma Lion,” a 2016 biography by Michael Schumacher, also presents Ginsberg’s membership in light of the gay rights struggles of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that statutes criminalizing oral and anal sex between consenting adults were constituional. (The ruling was overturned in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas.) By the announcement of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” policy, around the time when Ginsberg wrote “Thoughts on NAMBLA,” he had become “very concerned with what he felt was a new tide of censorship, begun and promoted under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and now continued under the Clinton presidency, even if not under as nasty conditions,” Schumacher wrote.
Morgan points out that Ginsberg made ill-advised comments that he wished he had been taken advantage of by an older man when he was younger, saying he thought it would have helped him to recognize his sexual identity earlier. But he and other scholars tend to agree that Ginsberg was not himself a pederast. “Allen did love handsome young men, but he wasn’t sexually interested in prepubescent boys as many other NAMBLA members were,” Morgan wrote. “He told the New York Times, ‘I myself don’t like underage boys.’” Schumacher wrote that “In past interviews, Allen had broached the topic of sex with underage gay boys, joking he must be a pedophile because he found some youths physically attractive, but he had always drawn the line when the discussion turned to his actually having sex with them.”
Ginsberg was nonetheless convinced that he would “go to his grave” with his position on NAMBLA misunderstood by people, Schumacher wrote. Peter Hale, who helps oversee Ginsberg’s estate, said that Ginsberg’s public advocacy on behalf of NAMBLA was “extraordinarily naive,” but agreed that its motivations were political rather than prurient.
“I think people who know anything about Allen and know who he is, who’ve read his poetry, know better. It’s the people who look up the Wikipedia page and see that he once affiliated with them that tend to pounce, without knowing the full story,” Hale said in an email.
The journalist Matthew Power recounted his relationship with Ginsberg in “Holy Soul,” a 2002 essay in Heeb Magazine. He was 19 when he claims he first slept with Ginsberg, but met the poet, a friend of his family’s, at age 15 at a cousin’s bar mitzvah. Power, who died in 2014 while reporting in Uganda, leaves it ambiguous as to whether Ginsberg was “hitting on him” when they first met, but is complimentary about their first sexual encounter, describing it as “extraordinarily gentle and sympathetic” despite Ginsberg being five decades his senior — though, given the poet’s gift for metaphor, one could be forgiven for wondering.
“It was the age-old exchange, the vitality of youth offered up to the wisdom of experience and vice versa,” Power wrote. “Or, as Allen put it, ‘I’m a vampire sucking your youthful energy.’”
Removing Ginsberg is the second alteration that the board has had to make to the bohemia mural. Smith was getting ready to enjoy Labor Day Weekend when he learned that Linda Bukowski, the widow of poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, did not like the image of her late husband that had been selected to represent his likeness on the mural. Bukowski, a Los Angeles native who spent his later years in San Pedro, occasionally stopped by Hermosa’s Either/Or Bookstore, another of the places memorialized in the mural, to draw doodles in books of his that the store was selling. After conversations with the estate, the board agreed to drop Bukowski in favor of Leonard Wibberly, a longtime Hermosa resident who wrote the 1955 novel “The Mouse that Roared.”
Smith said he plans to replace Ginsberg with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a folk musician who influenced Bob Dylan and played at the Insomniac; the Insomniac’s founder Bob Hare will also be painted in. Despite the back and forth, Smith insists he is happier with the mural’s modified design. It allows him to include lesser-known people, instead of instantly recognizable faces like those of Ginsberg and Bukowski, which, he said, may be more likely to prompt closer inspection.
Asked whether he has ever had to change a mural before it was finished, Smith, who has painted public murals all over Southern California, said, “A lot.” He mentioned a previous mural that he had begun before receiving final approval from the local arts commision. He assumed it would be fine, but the commission ultimately objected to his depiction of people wearing bikinis.
Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship, said that because of their visibility, murals are a common arena for battles over free speech. She pointed to recent controversies over efforts to remove or modify murals at high schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The situation with Hermosa’s mural project, though, differs in an important respect. Because the group is a private entity, unlike, say, the city of Hermosa Beach, it is not bound by the same First Amendment concerns.
Ginsberg knew better than most that free speech law in the United States tends to be defined and expanded through extreme examples. In 1956, copies of “Howl and Other Poems” were impounded after San Francisco authorities accused Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore, of attempting to sell “obscene and indecent writings.” A judge later dismissed the charge in part because of evidence of the work’s literary merit. Mintcheva said that Ginsberg’s legacy as an opponent of censorship made Hermosa’s case stand out.
“This seems to me, of all the controversial murals I have encountered, not something that should be… Look, I mean people are offended by all kinds of stuff. But the act of erasing something on the wall, erasing a major American poet, that is something that Hermosa is going to regret,” Mintcheva said.
Given its location in such a busy area for pedestrians, plenty of people have walked by the mural-in-progress. Smith said that, in the time he has spent working on the project so far, “99.99999 percent of the people are extremely happy about the mural going up,” and that “the small group of people that don’t like anything about the mural” have communicated by email with property owners or the mural board.
Mintcheva said this is typical in mural controversies.
“People who are not objecting go by the mural saying, Oh this is great. You are left with a skewed perception of a mural by just having input from people who object. These are the people who are going to actively contact someone,” she said.
Both Smith and Izant said that they expected some controversy and criticism over a mural dealing with counterculture, but Smith said he is worried that, if he were to carry on with Ginsberg, it would overshadow the rest of his ambitious work. Along with icons from Hermosa past, it features a quote from Wibberley written upside-down, and mixes mixes two- and three-dimensional representations. It is an effort, Smith said, to use painting to get people to shift their perspective.
“As an artist I would like to be more involved in kind of a political debate and have murals that do create more of a discussion. Not necessarily an outrage, but a discussion, with people that agree with it and people that don’t,” Smith said. “Art is about creating things to think about. Not just to pacify people, but to stir people up.”