(June 5) -- An Arizona school mural designed to promote environmentally friendly transportation has ignited a debate about race and censorship of the arts.
Officials at Miller Valley Elementary School in Prescott, Ariz., asked the painters of the mural to lighten the skin of children depicted after a city councilman denounced its prominent portrayal of ethnic minorities. Following protests, the principal apologized today for making the request. "Miller Valley made a mistake when we asked them to lighten the mural. We made a mistake," said Principal Jeff Lane.
The mural shows children walking and cycling in a garden-like scene, with birds flying around them.
"We don't have a racist town," R.E. Wall, who painted the "Go on Green" mural, told AOL News. "I believe we have racist city council."
City Councilman Steve Blair, who says he "can't stand" the word "diversity," criticized the mural on his talk-radio show. He particularly targeted the portrayal of the painting's main figure, a dark-skinned boy in blue jeans and green sweatshirt.
"To depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, 'Why?'" Blair said on a May 21 broadcast, according to The Daily Courier.
The child in question is meant to be a Mexican-American, Wall told AOL News.
When the Courier published an article online about the unveiling of the mural, readers left comments describing the painting as "tacky," "ghetto" and "ugly." On his radio show, Blair said that he had spoken to locals who are offended by the mural and call it "graffiti."
The mural aims to fight childhood obesity by encouraging children to walk or cycle to school. It was paid for by the Prescott Alternative Transportation Organization, with money from the state Department of Transportation's Safe Routes to School program, The Associated Press reported.
Students examined different options for the design of the mural, before passing on their recommendations to the school's teachers, who had the final say.
"The teachers selected this design because it focused on children and their role in the environment," Lane told the AP.
Wall says that he and his fellow painters from the Prescott Downtown Mural Project, were often harassed by drivers passing by the mural. The motorists shouted racial slurs against the figures depicted, said Wall, adding that the painters were working with school children at the time.
"To us it's children, we don't care what color they are," Wall told AOL News. "But for some people, that's all they see. "
As the controversy grew, school authorities requested the artists lighten the skin tones on the forehead and cheeks of the main boy depicted, and to make the children appear happier.
The school's principal denies that he was motivated by any kind of political pressure relating to racism.
"We asked them to fix the shading on the children's faces," Lane told The Arizona Republic. "We were looking at it from an artistic view. Nothing at all to do with race."
Wall told AOL News that the artists would work to make the most prominent child look more like a Mexican-American but that they "weren't interested" in simply lightening the skin tones.
He says he's glad that the controversy has erupted, as it provides a rallying point for Latinos who have been squeezed by city measures, such as banning soccer in public parks.
"Art shouldn't just be flat pictures of puppies," Wall told AOL News. "Like Picasso said, art should be a hammer that shatters the illusion of the masses."