In the month since a dragon sculpture was installed in Old Town—ostensibly to honor the neighborhood's Chinese community—the piece has been vandalized, with chunks of the dragon's mouth and left eye now missing. For those who've been tracking the controversy over the work of public art, the vandalism is not exactly surprising—members of Old Town's Chinese community have deemed the sculpture offensive.
"For Chinese, the dragon is representative of the kingdom, power, kindness, and health," says James Leung, manager of the House of Louie restaurant, which faces the dragon. "But now, the dragon is only a head, and he's wearing a collar. We have to see it every day, and we'd like it removed."
Upset neighborhood residents who are upset over the sculpture are slated to sit down at a mediation session with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) in the coming weeks. Mediation may lead to the sculpture's removal.
The $24,000 granite and steel sculpture—which sits at the northwest corner on NW Davis, between 3rd and 4th—is one of eight works the RACC commissioned by Washington sculptor Brian Goldbloom on behalf of the Portland Development Commission (PDC) in August 2004, as part of the PDC's ongoing efforts to improve the Old Town Urban Renewal area.
Goldbloom took input from community members before creating the work—he pitched it as a piece that reflects the diversity of the area.
"The dragon is as much a symbol of being Chinese as Friday the 13th is a symbol of bad luck to most Americans," says Louis Lee, a certified public accountant who sat on the RACC committee that commissioned the work, and whose Old Town office overlooks the controversial piece. "And the steel collar appears to some in the community to suggest that the dragon is on some kind of leash."
Meanwhile, an upturned wok at the base of the piece has also been criticized for appearing to symbolize local restaurants going out of business.
RACC is reportedly considering a plaque under the dragon to better explain the artist's intent. But by Friday, December 8, RACC Public Art Manager Kristin Calhoun—who has coordinated the project since its inception—would not rule out replacing the sculpture altogether, if that is the outcome of mediation with the community.
"I'm not happy people are feeling offended by it," she said. "But at the moment I feel it is jumping the gun to say what we will do. I'm not ready to rule anything in or out, and we need to have more discussion with the community to achieve clearer understanding."