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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Light Freezing Drizzle Fog/Mist
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'Gangsta' photo at downtown Madison post office stirs controversy

It was hardly "Piss Christ" or a Robert Mapplethorpe erotic nude picture.

But a picture by an 11-year-old Hmong girl of her stepbrother prompted two complaints (one from a Madison police officer) and a lot of hand-wringing about what is appropriate for an art show in a Madison public building.

The photograph was part of the annual "InterConnection: A Bridge Across the Borderline" exhibition in the Madison Municipal Building in May and June, near the Post Office.

The picture (Isthmus was unable to get a copy for print) shows a little boy, perhaps 10, wearing a navy blue bandana across his face. His left hand is held in front of his body in a sideways peace sign.

The photographer's statement underneath the color photograph explains her subject: "He likes to hang out with me, play sports and play with his Nintendo. Also he likes to be a gangsta. He helps me to clean up the house."

But the two people who complained felt the hand gesture and the word "gangsta" were glorifying gang violence. There was discussion about whether to take the picture down. But the show ended on Monday, so it came down with all the others.

The exhibit was sponsored by the Kennedy Heights Community Center and Girls Inc. Photographer Sandy Woytal-Weber, who runs the art project, says the aim is to increase self-esteem of young girls by teaching them photography and how to document their world.

"It was a picture taken by an 11-year-old girl of her step-brother, doing what little kids do. He was dressed up. I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion," Woytal-Weber says, adding that last week's issue of Isthmus "has a picture of Johnny Depp playing a gangster on the cover."

Karin Wolf, Madison Arts Program Administrator, which oversees who exhibits in the space, says she understands the complainants' concerns. "If this was a picture of a 10-year-old girl in a bikini washing a car - that happens - it would upset me," she says. "Or a kid in a Klansman outfit: do we need to impose that on a person going to mail a letter?"

Community groups submit proposals for what to show in the space each October, Wolf says. "The committee I staff reviews the proposals, but we never actually view the work, because often times they aren't even done yet."

She's now polling other government bodies, trying to put together a procedure for what to do when people complain about art in the space. But Wolf loves the offending picture, which she ended up buying for $25.

"It's been described in so many different ways, which just affirms for me how subjective it is," she says. "I have gone through a total evolution of how I see it."

When she first saw the picture on the opening night of the exhibit, May 1, it affected her right away. She told the photographer whom she wouldn't name for print that she "thought a young boy pretending to be a gangster was sad." But the photographer "thought it was just play."

Now, Wolf isn't even sure if it's a gang sign. After researching on the web, she "found a lot of images that showed young Asian people making that gesture."

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