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Headed West owner on the saving of his hookah mural

mike mahaney at mural.jpg
Headed West owner Mike Mahaney in front of his mural.
Just because the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled against the City of Englewood in its effort to get rid of an Alice In Wonderland-inspired mural featuring a hookah-puffing insect doesn't mean Headed West owner Mike Mahaney, the man who commissioned it in the first place, can rest easy. "The city has 45 days to decide if they want to appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court," says Mahaney, who's run Headed West for thirteen years -- and until that period passes, he's resisting the urge to celebrate. According to him, "I'll be happy if I can just sleep at night."

The two-year-plus ordeal certainly began innocently enough.

Back in the spring of 2007, Mahaney, who had grown tired of having people put graffiti tags on the side of his building, commissioned several artists to create the mural, which includes such familiar Lewis Carroll creations as the hookah-smoking caterpillar and the White Rabbit (who was originally pictured with a pill on his tongue). But shortly after it was completed, he says, "the neighbor next to me called the city and complained. He didn't like the drug innuendos. He thought it promoted drug use" -- an interpretation Mahaney rejects. "Take any perception you want, but most kids in America own that movie. I guess it's okay for our kids to own it, but not okay for the general public to see it."

Things moved quickly after that. Over the course of a week or so, Mahaney continues, "they had a council meeting and said they wanted me to take it down. They called it a sign, called it advertising, said it was too big and that I didn't get a permit, even though it says right there in the code that works of art didn't need a permit. And as far as I'm concerned, it's artwork."

The Englewood City Council wasn't persuaded, ordering Mahaney to paint over the mural -- and he was ready to do it "after I found out what the penalties were. There was, like, a thousand dollar fine and up to a year in jail. And at the time, my daughter was a year-and-a-half old. I really didn't want to take that risk."

What changed his mind? The immediate support he got from customers and others in the area, whose numbers grew when the media latched onto the story -- local TV stations and newspapers, as well as Fox News.

This publicity blitz led directly to the American Civil Liberties Union offering to represent him in a challenge to the Englewood sign code, beginning what he calls "the whole hurry-up-and wait game with the court system." He and his lawyer waived their right to a speedy trial, and when a hearing was finally conducted in Arapahoe County the following year, he wound up on the short end of the ruling. Nonetheless, he never seriously considered surrendering. "The ACLU is pretty powerful, and they weren't ready to give up," he says. "They wanted to push forward." The ACLU took the case on a pro bono basis, meaning Mahaney only had to pay court costs and filing fees. And while he admits that the controversy was a serious distraction, he felt the fight was worth seeing through to its end.

In the time between then and the Colorado Court of Appeals' verdict, Mahaney says the community has embraced the mural. "People ask me about it every day, and there are always people taking pictures -- like high-school students taking their senior pictures in front of it. And I've gotten all kinds of letters. I even got a postcard from an eighty-year-old lady who said she's lived in Englewood all her life and wants the mural to stay."

It will if Englewood decides not to incur the additional expense of appealing to the state Supreme Court, her wish will be made real. But with over two years invested in the mural battle, Mahaney's not making any guarantees. "I just hope it can stay," he says. "And I know a lot of other people hope it does, too."

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