No words: Social enterprise told to remove wall mural with positive message

Ottawa social enterprise Highjinx says the mural on its building spreads a positive message about helping one another, but after someone complained the City of Ottawa says it is a bylaw violation and should be removed.

Highjinx co-owner says mural has made neighbours feel welcome, but someone complained

Highjinx says the mural on its building spreads a positive message about helping one another, but the City of Ottawa says it was painted without a permit and must be removed. (Submitted by Karen Nielsen )

"We can't help everyone. But everyone can help someone."

Painted in black and red letters on a white background, those words are part of a mural on the side wall of a Kent Street building in Ottawa's Centretown area that houses social enterprise Highjinx.

The second-hand store sells vintage and antique products and doubles as a hub for people who are homeless or living on a low income.

A group of Carleton University students and alumni painted the mural during Ramadan as a gift.

"Having that wall with the slogan has made our neighbours in the community feel very welcome," Karen Nielsen, co-owner of Highjinx, said in an interview on CBC Radio's All In A Day.

"We are seeing, you know, all different kinds of people that are entering our backyard and feeling welcome and able to receive some help or some food or just hang out in a place where they feel safe."

Complaint leads to violation notice

Not everyone approved of the mural. The City of Ottawa says it received a complaint, then discovered no permit was sought and ordered the mural be taken down. 

The city gave the property owner, who is renting to Highjinx, a deadline of July 14 to remove it or apply for a residential mural permit. The deadline was extended to give the Highjinx team more time to find a solution.

"We're good neighbours. We're not rule breakers, so we will do what's necessary," said Nielsen.

"We do think it's ridiculous and offensive to remove a gift because one person is offended by it."

Nielsen admits the students who painted the mural didn't apply for a permit, although they did get permission from the building's owner and the neighbouring landlord.

LISTEN: City of Ottawa tells social enterprise to remove mural

Artist to paint new mural

The city's intervention prompted Nielsen to team up with House of PainT, an urban arts festival that celebrates hip hop and graffiti, in a bid to salvage the art. 

Veronica Roy, the festival's executive director, said they will need to paint a new mural because the current one doesn't meet bylaw requirements that prevent residential murals from having "lettering, messaging or slogans," except for an artist's signature, logos, or the name of a business.

Veronica Roy, director of the House of PainT festival, is helping the Highjinx social enterprise find an artist to repaint the mural with a visual representation of its existing message. (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

"I understand why the city has those rules," Roy said.

"But I think there needs to be some nuance on a case-by-case basis when it's a positive message like Highjinx has on its building."

Roy said the plan is to hire an artist who will work with the original painters to develop a design that includes visual representation of the mural's current message, given words aren't allowed.

"That's probably the best we can do within the system that we have," said Roy.

Roy said the city's existing rules around residential murals are too strict and property owners should be able to paint their own buildings as they see fit, provided they aren't offensive.

"I hope it happens soon so it can be resolved, we can put it behind us, so we can go back to just being good neighbours," Nielsen said. 

With files from CBC Radio's All In A Day