Though the artwork is not finalized, SurfStyle’s proposed storefront includes a series of graphic metal panels affixed to the store’s exterior walls with metal anchors. The main entrance to the former Kmart will be closed, and two new entrances will be created by demolishing portions of the existing wall. API+/Contributed

The seven days since the Keys Weekly broke the news of beachwear retailer SurfStyle’s plans for Marathon’s former Kmart building have been filled with a massive outcry from local residents. Largely demanding protection for the historic mural set to be covered and partially destroyed by the building’s refreshed facade, many asked for further clarity regarding the retailer’s plans for the space, citing seemingly conflicting information found in the Weekly’s report, SurfStyle’s permit and email replies seemingly sent by the company to concerned citizens immediately following the Nov. 2 article.

Throughout this week, the Weekly carefully studied SurfStyle’s permit on file with the city of Marathon and spoke at length with city officials, SurfStyle executives and original mural artists Wyland and Guy Harvey in an attempt to rectify these conflicting accounts.

What’s the Issue?

Permit P-23-1065, last revised Oct. 23, details plans for a reimagined facade for SurfStyle’s newest location. Included are plans to cover a majority of the storefront with graphic metal panels affixed to the existing walls with metal anchors.

While the artwork for these panels is not finalized, the panels are currently slated to cover the location of artists Wyland and Guy Harvey’s 2001 mural, dubbed “Whaling Wall #87 – Florida’s Radiant Reef.” 

Speaking with the Weekly by phone on Nov. 2, SurfStyle managing partner Gilad Ovaknin was asked to confirm whether the metal panel system would indeed obscure the original work of art.

“It is going to be replacing the original,” Ovaknin said.

However, in an email exchange on Nov. 6, in which he was asked if SurfStyle would consider leaving the original wall with an unaltered mural, Ovaknin’s wording slightly changed.

“We will work out these details with Wyland and Guy Harvey as we progress the design work and weigh all the aspects in order to deliver the most valuable public art mural to the area for many more years to come,” he wrote.

SurfStyle’s permit documents additionally outline demolition plans which appear to call for closure of the existing building’s main doorway and demolition of a portion of the wall with the original mural in order to create the new store’s east entrance. Asked to confirm these plans, Ovaknin wrote that “the current plans reflect a rebuilding of an expanded facade and applying a new mural on it.”

Architectural plans for SurfStyle’s new storefront, overlaid on images of the existing building, indicate demolition of a portion of Wyland and Guy Harvey’s ‘Whaling Wall #87’ to install SurfStyle’s new east entrance. Graphic compiled from architecture plans by API+ and images by Alex Rickert.

SurfStyle’s Vision

In the Nov. 6 email exchange, Ovaknin outlined the retailer’s vision for the revamped space.

“As part of our redevelopment effort, we produced plans to build a surf machine in the space, revamp the marine mural outside on a new expanded façade and rehabilitate the entire indoor space to include video walls, (an) indoor marine mural and an amazing shopping experience that Surf Style provides with everything you need for your Florida vacation experience in the Keys,” he wrote.

Noting that artwork included in preliminary graphic renderings for the storefront was for “illustration only,” Ovaknin said the company has yet to make a final call on the illustration used for the storefront’s metal panels.

As part of the retailer’s efforts to redevelop the building’s facade, Ovaknin said, his team had approached Harvey after a collaboration 10 years prior on a SurfStyle store in Clearwater. But as Ovaknin confirmed in the same email, he was unaware until a phone conversation with the Weekly on Nov. 2 that Wyland was the lead artist on the mural, with Harvey added as a guest collaborator.

“Guy Harvey’s team had expressed their interest in working with us on revitalizing the mural on a new facade,” Ovaknin wrote. “I now understand that Guy Harvey relied on me to coordinate with Wyland, and I relied on them for the same. Nevertheless, since our last call I spoke to both Guy Harvey’s team and (Wyland Foundation executive director) Steve Creech and received from both a positive interest in revamping the mural collab (with) Wyland’s leadership.”

“It’s an exciting project, and SurfStyle will be honored to have Wyland continue that same collab with Guy Harvey on that new outside facade and inside that store, with the intent of having that art mural there for another 30 years and more.”

Wyland, Guy Harvey Speak Out

Speaking to the Weekly by phone on Nov. 7, Wyland’s account of the last several days was in stark contrast to Ovaknin’s. Acknowledging he had been out of the country with limited communication until Tuesday while working on a mural in Havana, Cuba, the artist said there was “no way (he) gave permission,” though he had spoken to Harvey by text.

“That wall is sacred to the people of Marathon and the Florida Keys,” he said. “I won’t even consider anything like that – that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Steve (Creech) is on the same page as me,” he added. “What Steve and I talked about was, if they’re going to redo the inside and spruce up the outside, they could certainly do some lighting and some different colors around it. But never would we allow it to be blocked or (have) some signage on it.”

Wyland referred again to federal protections he believed would be afforded to the mural under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), used in seemingly similar scenarios to effect multimillion-dollar settlements in previous court cases.

“My lawyers have already lined up to sue them for $11.5 million if they touch it,” he said. “The community, myself, the leaders of Marathon have got to take a stand.

“They can do something with the existing doors, but if they’re going to destroy one inch of that wall, we’re not going to let it happen. They need to know that there’s going to be a serious price to pay. I’m hoping they come around to some common sense and say ‘you know, this does fit with our brand.’” 

In a text message with the Weekly on Nov. 7, Harvey expressed similar support for preservation of the mural in its original, unaltered form.

“When I heard … SurfStyle wanted to refurbish the building, my first thought was they should ask Wyland how best to preserve the mural,” he wrote. “When I saw the renderings of the proposed new building, the mural was not included but replaced by some of my reproduced images, which SurfStyle has used before.

“I have not been in direct contact with SurfStyle’s management, only with my apparel licensee Intradeco, which is based in Miami. I conveyed to my brand manager at Intradeco that the account, SurfStyle, should make best efforts to redesign the front and include the original wall and painting. As with any public murals that Wyland and I have created together or separately … they are monuments to nature and encourage people to admire, respect and conserve our marine environment.”

Conflicting Responses

Several Marathon residents expressed confusion when, to their surprise, emails sent to SurfStyle soon after the Weekly’s Nov. 2 article expressing concern with plans for the mural were met with a response promising that the retailer “(has) no intention of covering up the 20-year-old mural.”

But as SurfStyle marketing director Tara Malinasky told the Weekly on Nov. 6, these early responses were handled by a third-party customer service company contracted by SurfStyle, and representatives responding had not received specific instructions for inquiries about the Marathon store. 

Both she and Ovaknin said the company had ordered a halt to these replies pending a formal statement from the company, and several Marathon residents who contacted the company more recently confirmed that their emails were not yet answered.

“Surf Style’s instructions were to not send a response to the emails yet, until a formal response is released,” Ovaknin wrote in Monday’s emails to the Weekly when asked about the third-party service. “We plan to release one early this week to the residents.”

As of press time on Nov. 8, none of the Weekly’s contacts had received an updated statement from the company.

What’s Next?

As of Nov. 8, SurfStyle’s plans were still under review by city staff, with multiple departments placing holds on the permit for further consideration. If and when the permit is issued, it will enter a five-day local appeal period, during which residents can voice their concerns, before being rendered to the state for a 45-day review by the Florida Department of Commerce.

Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez acknowledged that the city has little to no ability to deny the permit based solely on a desire to preserve a mural on private property, as long as the permit documents submitted comply with the city’s code of ordinances and meet all legal requirements. Nonetheless, at his direction, the agenda for the Marathon City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 5:30 p.m. includes the mural as a discussion item, opening the floor for public comment and possible discussion with stakeholders. Ovaknin told the Weekly on Nov. 8 that one or more SurfStyle representatives, including himself, would plan to attend.

“Ultimately, the issue is between the landlord and the tenant,” Gonzalez told the Weekly on Nov. 2. “However, the mural is an integral part of the community. We all appreciate its presence, and hope that the new business will reconsider and keep this unique and artistic piece of Marathon’s beauty.”

A petition titled “Save the Wyland Wall Mural in Marathon, FL” authored by longtime Marathon resident Mary Stella had amassed more than 2,000 signatures at press time on Nov. 8. A similar Facebook group created by Stella and local fisheries biologist Andrew Heise titled “Save Wyland’s Whale Mural!” totaled more than 900 members as of Thursday.

“The people of the Florida Keys are in danger of losing a treasured piece of our cultural history,” Stella wrote in the online petition’s description. “Action must be taken now to convince SurfStyle to change their plan, preserve the original mural, and include it in their design plan. … Show SurfStyle that we treasure the mural and are adamant that it remain in place so that residents and visitors can continue to enjoy and be inspired by it for years to come.”

Other Contacts

The Weekly spoke by phone to an employee of Kimco, the real estate investment trust that owns the building in question, on Nov. 7. The employee declined to make an official statement on Kimco’s behalf, and said others from the company would contact the Weekly with a formal response. As of press time on Nov. 8, no additional response was received.

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.