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A Tale of Two Pradas: Popular Installation Vandalized in West Texas

On Sunday, the popular Prada Marfa art installation outside Valentine was vandalized with blue spray paint, hanging bibles and quotes from the likes of Jack Kerouac and Dylan.

A manifesto tacked to one of the walls criticized the installation, and it's looking like the damage could've been the work of a guerilla artist.

Some have praised it, some think it's a waste of money, some have even shot it full of bullet holes. But the faux-Prada store situated here on this dry stretch of Highway 90 has become a pop-culture icon in Texas, or at the very least, a reliable tourist draw.

To locals, the installation’s become a routine part of the landscape since it was commissioned in 2005 by European artists Elmgreen and Dragset.

But Sunday morning was different. Suddenly the building was dark blue, littered flyers from the Tom’s Shoe Company and strung-up bibles.

“I thought some goof-ass had to tear somethin' up,” says Red Brown, a Valentine resident and probably one of the first to see the damage.

“Looked to me like somebody didn't have much to do.”

Red says he doubts any locals were responsible.

There was plenty of debate when Prada Marfa was first built. Some locals felt like it wasn't exactly polite to set up a fake shop full of shoes people in this town could probably never really afford.

But Red and his wife LaNelle say people have come to terms with the work, if only because they like watching all the different people who stop for a look.

“The initial word or the initial feeling is what a horrible thing to do, how terrible,” says Rita Weigart, another local. She was on the scene early Sunday as well, and stopped to help clean up some of the banners and paper glued to the windows.

“My daughters were with me in the car and they couldn't believe what they saw,” she says, “so they turned around and we started snapping pictures, and posted them on the Web and it kinda went from there.”

She agrees that it probably wasn't a local vandal. She says there were mixed emotions when the work first went up, but people in town have come to appreciate at least some parts of it.

“I guess the tourism kinda brings people in from all parts of the world,” Rita says, “people that you don't usually see driving down Highway 90. It’s become an icon.”

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Some of those tourists were actually on hand when Rita discovered the damage. They stuck around to help clean up, but they were pretty bummed about what they saw.

The story's since taken a turn that would thrill any Sherlock Holmes fan.

A signature left on the blue walls was traced to an artist who goes only by the name of “9271997.” Then on Monday somebody contacted Big Bend Sentinel reporter John Daniel Garcia and started texting about the damage.

The phone's voicemail message stated only those numbers – 9271997.

“Nothing wrong with all of it,” one of the texts read, seemingly referring to the damaged work, “can’t wait for a proposal or call for art by the ‘art world.’”

Marfa resident Jason Kolker says whoever vandalized the piece was also trying to make some sort of statement, perhaps on the nature of corporate retail. Kolker says he actually spoke to this mystery artist on the phone.

“And he certainly didn't reveal anything about Prada Marfa,” Kolker says, “I only found out a few hours later when I spoke to someone from the newspaper, JD Garcia.”

Kolker met up with Garcia and some friends who had seen a suspicious-looking person they thought could be the culprit.

Garcia had been scanning the artist’s website, and he showed the group a picture. Everyone confirmed – that was the guy they’d seen earlier that day.

A day later, and it appeared this guerilla artist, the guy who may have vandalized Prada Marfa, was still around.

“I don't think the installation was interesting, I don't think it was well done,” says Melissa McDonnell-Lujan. She’s the Deputy Director for Ballroom Marfa, the Marfa-based art gallery and non-profit that takes care of the Prada Marfa piece.

When she says the “installation”, she’s talking about the vandalized building. In the manifesto left at the scene, the vandal claimed it was an act of re-taking of the piece – something the art world’s not a stranger to.

Just last month, somebody destroyed a million dollar piece of art by Ai Wei Wei at a Miami museum, claiming it was a protest aimed at taking back the museum for local artists.

“It was an appropriation of Prada Marfa,” says McDonnell-Lujan. “It was taking over that space, and using it to promote their own project.”

McDonnell speaks plainly about the act, calling it “a publicity stunt.”

Ballroom has denounced the vandalism, saying while Prada Marfa does invite public reactions, this particular act “overwhelms this forum and shuts down the dialogue.”

Most public reaction here has been along the same lines, but there have been some rumblings that the act fits into the original purposee of the art – to provoke public reaction and interaction.

But with Ballroom and its Prada Marfa partner the Art Production Fund now facing at least ten thousand dollars in damages, it's likely any debates on the artistic merits of vandalism will take a back seat to the more logistical problems at hand - the criminal investigation, and where to get the money for the repairs.


Jeff Davis County authorities said on Thursday (March 13) they have identified a suspect in the case, but they haven’t yet released the name of that person. 

The Presidio County Sheriff's Office is assisting Jeff Davis County in the investigation.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.