A dispute between Tampa and St. Petersburg mural artists heats up online

An email over Tampa mural event Fresh Fest has sparked social media sparring.

click to enlarge A dispute between Tampa and St. Petersburg mural artists heats up online
Instagram screenshot

It started with an email this past July. Tony Krol and Michelle Sawyer — known as the husband-and-wife art duo Illsol — blind carbon copied who Krol calls "major players / curators in the Tampa Bay Arts Community" [sic] about Mark Stevens and Eric Hornsby's Tampa Bay Fresh Fest, slated for this February.

One of the people who received the email passed it along to Stevens, popularly known as Aurailieus Artist.

In the email, Illsol describes the upcoming Tampa Bay Fresh Fest as a "graffiti festival" best suited to a warehouse district.

Stevens shared the email on Instagram and made reference to it on his Facebook page, tagging Illsol on his posts. One of the things that bothered him? In the email, Illsol wrote that they "do not think in the middle of the city and neighborhoods is the right placement" for TBFF.

Auraileus Artist has murals in downtown St. Petersburg and his familiar Bob the Robot art is scattered around town. Hornsby, known in the arts community as "Esh", is Stevens' partner in TBFF and a former Hillsborough County park ranger who has painted six murals at Mort Elementary School, a stairway at Booker T. Washington Elementary in Ybor City, murals in Tampa Heights and one at the Hillsborough Conservation Land Management main offices at Bell Creek.

Illsol is the artist team that painted the Tampa Heights community mural at 2612 N. Tampa Street, as well as other murals on and in private property. They also curate the mergeculture gallery and this summer curated Classics, a graffiti exhibit featuring classic Reeboks at Burn Rubber in Ybor City (we've also covered their work here, here and here, so if the name's familiar, that's why).

When Stevens posted a picture of the email Wednesday night, Illsol responded on Stevens’ Instagram account, suggesting Stevens had selectively shared parts of what was happening.

"We reached out Mark Stevens with questions regarding his initiatives and offered only solutions to potential funding sources to help this group keep up their work for a longer period of time. That’s the truth. Hardly any of these artists making complaints against us know us personally including this one who posted this. But it’s easy take snippets of a longer conversation and make it seem as if we are the cause of shortcomings. Everyone needs someone to blame," Krol posted on Stevens’ Instagram..

In response, Stevens posted: "This was an email you sent out not part of any conversation we ever had."

Sawyer told Creative Loafing Illsol meant no harm by sending the email.

"I didn't know, it sounded as if we were being asked for help because we are pretty well-known in Tampa. This comes from thinking the founders wanted a little assistance," she said. But, she added, "Art isn't just a fun free-for-all, it's a business. Knowing the ins and outs of how things work, what we've noticed stays and what goes, I honestly thought we would be an asset in helping them."

Why? "I'm going to be brutally honest about Tampa," she told us, "There's a power group here when it comes to art. They're not open-minded."

This is all why, the twosome explained, they sent an email: to help.

"I drafted this email in a way to move Fresh Fest forward with some preliminary information we had already gathered through our work in the community," Krol posted on his Facebook page this morning.

"I don’t think you really understand this. Let me put this in perspective for you," Krol told Creative Loafing. “It works a little differently than St. Pete." Krol gave the example of a group of artists coming to Derek Donnelly's neighborhood. "If [an unfamiliar group] tried to do this in Pinellas Park, his neighborhood would be like, 'who are these people?'"

That's what happened, Sawyer said, to her and Krol.

"For some reason, maybe because we live and work in Tampa Heights, people were reaching out to us and confusing the initiatives. Mark Stevens reached out to us, very vaguely,” Sawyer told CL. “We assumed he was asking for help. In all honesty, we had no idea he was trying to recruit us to paint in the festival."

When Stevens reached out to Illsol, they sent back an email with some questions.

"What that email was regarding was a series of questions that we suggested Mark Stevens consider while asking for funds," Sawyer explained. "Being Tampa residents and I am a Tampa native, we’ve worked a lot in the city."

"We have a good relationship with people who write checks for these [types of] projects," Krol said. "You have to have clear vision. I think Fresh Fest didn't have that."

Sawyer says they suggested looking outside the main areas of Tampa for Tampa Bay Fresh Fest.

"These are things you should probably think about, because this isn't St. Pete," she said they told Stevens.

From there, communication sort of broke down.

Illsol expressed concern over bad feelings about the Heights Wall Project at Cafe Hey, saying Hornsby had wanted to paint a section of  wall there and because they didn't let him, there was bad blood.

Krol also said that Hornsby told Krol ""he would kick anyone's ass if they said anything negative about his work."

"That's patently false, not true," Hornsby said.

Donnelly, whose 501c3, Public Art Project, has partnered with TBFF, says he's been following the dustup on social media. He told CL that creatives often differ and his hope would be that they could come together for the sake of creating art.

“Esh truly epitomizes the spirit of the Tampa Bay creative culture," Donnelly said. "It’s very disheartening that other professional creatives may not see things the same way as some others, but it is definitely an integral part of the growth of our creative culture in the Tampa Bay area, this grassroots movement, and it’s the only way it happened in St. Pete, it’s the only way it can happen across the rest of the Bay, or the state, for that matter — people working together, using that ‘one hand washes the other’ approach, and really having pure intentions and wanting to spread love, spread art and creativity and open the minds of the young people who are looking at these murals. It’s for everybody.“

Illsol told Creative Loafing they had great concern, too, as to why Stevens has begun publicizing the email now.

"I don't know why this is directed toward us; is it not happening and they don't have funding? There's no reason for it not to happen," Krol said. "That email was sent in no way to hurt anyone."

Now, though, he said "it's being spun as if we're elitist jerks and racists."

"He's had our email for months now, he could have reached out," Sawyer told Creative Loafing.

Krol says he feels like Stevens is cyberbullying him.

"St. Pete artists do this sort of thing all of the time and you’re giving them more credibility to act like children," Krol said, of Stevens posting the email on his Facebook page and his Instagram page and asking Illsol to publicly explain it.

"I'm at my wit's end with this. There's no incentive for me to try and sabotage this," Krol said. He and Stevens had a phone conversation about the issue Thursday afternoon. Both men have given Creative Loafing their takeaway from the talk.

"He couldn't seem to understand how that email was bad," Stevens told CL. "He thinks there was no nefariousness in it."

"Meeting went great," Krol told us in a text, adding that he had posted a Facebook response to our as-of-yet-unpublished article about the email/social media escalation.

Is TBFF still on? Hornsby says yes, and Donnelly has pledged to make it happen.

“I’m going to exhaust every effort I have through my nonprofit public art project to see Fresh Fest 2.0 through the successful completion.”

Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor. Follow our arts coverage on Twitter, or subscribe to our weekly Do This newsletter. Or, hey, how about both?

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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