Prominent Portland street artists are praising a mural that originally portrayed Gov. Paul LePage in Ku Klux Klan robes and the city’s decision not to remove it from a public wall at this time, saying the painting is a powerful expression of free speech.

“It’s so rare to see art that shows craftsmanship and is also engaged in the present state of affairs in Maine and actually talks about real issues,” street artist Orson Horchler said of the graffiti created by an unknown artist or artists in the past week. “Everything is lobster or lighthouses, or it’s an abstract installation that someone with a doctorate can only understand. The directness of it and the fact that it’s engaged is something I think we really need.”

Horchler, who goes by the name Pigeon, is responsible for the portraits of new Mainers that most recently were installed at the Maine Historical Society.

Mike Rich, one of the artists who worked on the famed Asylum nightclub mural during its years on Free Street, was glad to see the public graffiti space used for political statement.

“It’s just a gnarly political atmosphere lately,” Rich said. “It’s good to see people speaking up and using art. I think that’s really powerful and important.”

The graffiti appeared sometime in the past week near the Eastern Promenade Trail, on a wall that has been open to artists for more than a decade. The image of LePage appeared next to the words “racism,” “homophobe” and “moron.” The last word, “governor,” is crossed out with a red line of paint. The message “Dump LePage” is also written across the entire 100-foot-long wall. The work is not signed.

Not everyone, however, saw the mural in a positive light.

City resident Mark Reilly covered it up Tuesday night, and a group of young women then washed off Reilly’s fresh coat of white paint. But Ku Klux Klan imagery was replaced later that evening with Mickey Mouse ears and the words “No Hate” and “Hate is Hate.”

Karl Miller of Portland walks by the image of Gov. LePage on the graffiti wall on the Eastern Promenade. The graffiti originally showed LePage in a Ku Klux Klan robe but was painted over by another artist who added Mickey Mouse ears and the words "No Hate" and "Hate is Hate."

Karl Miller of Portland walks by the image of Gov. LePage on the graffiti wall on the Eastern Promenade. The graffiti originally showed LePage in a Ku Klux Klan robe but was painted over by another artist who added Mickey Mouse ears and the words “No Hate” and “Hate is Hate.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer)

On Wednesday, Reilly said people have a right to free speech, but the wall is public property and the painting only represented the view of a minority in Portland.

“I just didn’t think it reflected the sentiment of the city as a whole,” Reilly said.

He didn’t tackle the larger “Dump LePage” mural, but wanted to cover the depiction of the governor in a Ku Klux Klan robe. If people want civility in politics, name-calling isn’t the way to do it, Reilly said.

“People have been talking about a need for civil discourse. When you start calling people racist and homophobic, it is not a very civil discussion,” he said. “I just think we need to get past the name-calling and the arguments and have a discussion of how we move forward from here.”

The wall is between the Portland Water District’s wastewater treatment plant and a section of the Eastern Promenade Trail. Owned by the water district, the wall has been open to artists since 2001. Rich said it is popular with younger artists who want to paint without getting in trouble with private property owners.

“It’s a free wall,” Rich said. “Anyone wants to go paint it, they’re more than welcome to.”

Water district spokeswoman Michelle Clements said artists themselves govern the space; applications or permission to paint there are not needed.

Officials at the water district at first agreed the mural should remain, but Clements said they had asked the city if it could be covered up.

“We do feel the nature of the painting was inappropriate and have asked the city to review options for removing (inappropriate paintings) from public art displays,” she said Wednesday.

Portland officials have said the city does not have legal grounds to remove the painting in its original or current form.

“This constitutes political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment,” said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

“Just because we’re claiming it’s a First Amendment issue and it’s not hate speech doesn’t mean we’re condoning it,” she added.

Much of the controversial East End mural had been defaced by competing interests late Tuesday, with the likeness of the governor trading in its KKK regalia for Mickey Mouse ears.

Much of the controversial East End mural had been defaced by competing interests late Tuesday, with the likeness of the governor trading in its KKK regalia for Mickey Mouse ears. Dennis Hoey/Staff Writer

Neither the water district nor the city has heard from the artist or artists who created the mural. Horchler and Rich also said they don’t know who painted the image.

Horchler said any street artist expects his or her work to be altered by other painters, but he didn’t think the city should step in as a moderator. If an artist created a mural glorifying LePage, Horchler said he would respect that person’s freedom of speech as well.

“If some kid goes up and paints over it, that’s different,” Horchler said. “It shouldn’t be up to the city. At that point it becomes censorship, it’s not about dialogue anymore.”

Rich said he doesn’t usually use his murals to make political statements, but around 2004, he and other artists painted the side of Asylum with images of then-President George W. Bush, a nuclear blast and an oil rig. Passers-by would yell at the artists as they worked, he remembered, and surrounding businesses were unhappy with the mural. But it remained for three or four years, and no one defaced it.

“Given its location and the high traffic through there, they used the platform very well to state their opinions,” Rich said of the LePage mural.

On Wednesday, media and passers-by kept watch for more changes to the likeness of the governor and its Mickey Mouse ears. Bill and Susan Hall, visiting the city from the Aroostook County town of Hammond, said they heard about the mural in news reports, but hadn’t expected to stumble across it on their walk around the Eastern Promenade.

“It is a waste of time on both sides,” Bill Hall said. “I think it should come down. Agree with them or not, you should still respect people in office.”

Karl Siller, a 55-year-old Portland resident, was walking his regular route on the trail. The KKK imagery was “a little over the top,” he said, but he didn’t think it should come down.

“Everyone has a right to their opinions,” he said.

Another walker eyed the mural with a shrug, then followed his dog straight through the waiting camera crews to finish his walk.

“Art is art,” he called over his shoulder.

Staff Writer Peter McGuire contributed to this report.