When a cigar becomes a whale, a sign becomes art

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Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

An Arlington County businessman has found a way around a strict county sign law that has bedeviled other businesses and this week forced the owner of a dog day care to paint over a giant mural of cartoon pooches.

County zoning officials had declared illegal the $1,000 mural of a man smoking a cigar painted on the exterior wall of Smokey Shope III in Crystal City. The painting amounted to a sign promoting the business and had to be removed, officials said.

But the owner, Smokey Atta, had other ideas. His solution: a blue whale.

Rather than paint over the entire mural, Atta paid to have a blue whale painted over the cigar in the man’s hand. It no longer qualifies as a sign promoting the shop. Now, it’s art.

“It looks beautiful,” store manager Gavin Ferguson said of the whale. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the county made us do it. It was spontaneous. We were really just concerned about what we could make fit.”

Arlington County’s zoning administrator, Norma Cozart, said that with a whale replacing the cigar, the mural now is considered art.

Smokey Shope III arrived at its unusual solution after the county forced another business owner, Kim Houghton, of Wag More Dogs, an Arlington dog day care center, to paint over a mural on her building.

Two years ago, Arlington told Houghton that her building-sized painting of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints, which faced an adjacent dog park, had to come down because it illegally promoted the business even though it didn’t mention the shop.

Houghton fought the county’s decision in court for two years, but last May a judge ruled in favor of the county. Houghton’s attorney, Robert Frommer, said the ruling set “a very dangerous precedent” for future causes of “government bureaucrats playing art critics.”

“[It] was truly my expression of my love of dogs and this park in particular,” Houghton said.

The mural’s new artists, Rob Fogle and Zack Weaver, began painting over the dog mural on Tuesday. Fogle said the new mural was “still evolving,” but would feature a massive tree composed of city buildings and surrounded by birds.

The new mural — which will be completely dog-free — should be finished in two weeks.

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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