Wyland works in March 2022 to restore ‘Whaling Wall #87 - Florida’s Radiant Reef’ on the shuttered K-Mart building. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

Marathon locals may be delighted to know the official answer to a hot-button question: “What’s going into the Kmart building?”

They might be less than thrilled about the cost of the transition.

According to a permit currently on file with the city of Marathon, the building shuttered for two and a half years is slated to become the newest location for trendy beach clothing retailer SurfStyle. In addition to considerable retail space, the area formerly occupied by Kmart’s outdoor and fishing section is designated for use as a Flow Rider attraction, a small pool with pumps to provide a perpetual “wave” for its users.

Still, the face of the building will likely draw the attention of most locals. As currently permitted, the structure’s east end is set for a full redesign with a series of graphic metal panels, affixed with metal anchors over renowned artists Wyland and Guy Harvey’s 22-year-old “Whaling Wall #87.”

A rendering from architects’ plans currently on file with the city of Marathon show a revamped facade on the new SurfStyle building. The plans would obscure Wyland’s original mural with graphic metal panels affixed to the existing wall with metal anchors. ARCHITECTUREPLUS INTERNATIONAL/Contributed

Originally dedicated on March 9, 2001, the mural, titled “Florida’s Radiant Reef,” is one installment in a nearly 30-year series painted from 1981 to 2008 to raise global ocean awareness. In March 2022, with the assistance of several local businesses and Stanley Switlik art teacher Shannon Paul Wiley, Wyland returned to restore the mural, touching up outlines and adding a few new elements before applying a new clear protective coating to the entire piece.

As this piece was written, the duo was together again in Havana to paint what Wyland said will be his final large-scale mural on the National Aquarium of Cuba.

“It’s hard to believe that somebody would even consider destroying a public work of art that is so much a part of the community,” Wyland told the Weekly by phone on Oct. 27. “Talk about bad branding. To come in as a new business and try to do that is really disrespectful, not only to myself but everyone that supported that wall.”

“I believe Wyland’s murals, those found here in the Keys and at hundreds of locations throughout the world, should be preserved and maintained as part of our history,” added Wiley. “His creations are not only aesthetically magnificent, but speak volumes about the importance of conservation of marine species and preservation of this precious planet we are all blessed to share.”

Wyland pointed to protections he believes are afforded to the mural by the federal Visual Artists Rights Act. Passed in 1990, the legislation provides additional rights to the creators of significant artwork that meets a certain set of requirements, regardless of physical ownership of the work itself. 

Wyland works in March 2022 to restore ‘Whaling Wall #87 – Florida’s Radiant Reef’ on the shuttered K-Mart building. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

Several cases throughout the last 20 years would appear to be similar to this one. In 2018, a federal judge awarded $6.7 million to 21 graffiti artists after their works were abruptly painted over during the process of constructing luxury condominiums in Queens, New York. Ten years earlier, the U.S. government was among 11 defendants that paid $1.1 million to Los Angeles artist Kent Twitchell after his six-story mural honoring artist Ed Ruscha was painted over without his knowledge or consent.

In an email exchange obtained by the Weekly via a public records request, Marathon planning director Brian Shea cautioned David Keener, one of the project’s architects, about potential “community backlash” if the original mural is destroyed.

“Locals are very fond of the Wyland/Guy Harvey painting on the building,” Shea wrote, “And it looks like you are bisecting it to add the new entrance, and then covering it up with the metal panel system with graphics.” (Ironically, potential renderings for graphics on the new panels include work by none other than Guy Harvey.)

“We have made the owner aware,” Keener wrote in response. “He is working with Guy Harvey to either recreate the mural as a graphic applied to the metal panels or to repaint on them. We did what we could to keep the original but there was just no way with the exterior work proposed.”

SurfStyle’s permit (P-23-1065) is currently on hold for review by city staff. Its status may be monitored by typing the permit number in the “Search for Records” function at marathonfl.portal.opengov.com. Once issued by the city, 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. 

Conversations with several city officials indicated to the Weekly that the city’s ability to deny the permit outside of a civil suit is limited, as the mural is on private property owned by real estate investment trust Kimco.

A request seeking a comment from Marathon officials about efforts to preserve the mural, if any, was not returned by press time.

An email sent to SurfStyle’s Gilad Ovaknin, listed as the permit’s point of contact, seeking comment on the proposed design and impacts to the existing mural, had also gotten no response by press time.

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.