New Jersey artist censored over “End Hate Crimes” artwork

Mark Retacco's "End Hate Crimes" painting shown with the censored wrapping
Mark Retacco's "End Hate Crimes" painting shown with the censored wrapping

This was supposed to be the year Ocean County artist Mark Retacco made a comeback. After 10 years working past the hardships brought on by Hurricane Sandy, and taking care of his sick mother, Retacco was finally ready to leave his artistic dormant state, and once again, share his art with the community.

However, this April, Retacco found himself in a dicey situation after some of his paintings, which depict heavy subjects, received pushback from his community.

“It’s unacceptable, what they did to me,” Retacco said.

Just about all year long in Ocean County, Retacco had planned to showcase a collection of artwork in a retrospective called Stronger Together — Your Superpower Is Your Uniqueness. Through this collection of paintings, Retacco said he is trying to teach younger audiences to look within themselves to find what makes them unique and powerful.

In November 2022, Retacco said it was established between himself and the library that his art would be displayed at the different branches of Ocean County’s library system. All of April, the paintings were to be hanged at the Berkeley Township branch, all of June at the Lacey Branch, all of August at the Toms River Branch and all of September at the Barnegat Branch.

The full show came to a brief halt, when after three weeks on display, Retacco was asked by the library to remove three of his paintings – Dawn, Dawn of the Digital Age, and End Hate Crimes.

According to Retacco, a friend of a friend to the library found these paintings inappropriate for young audiences. And after only one complaint was made, Retacco said he was asked by a member of the library staff to remove the art.

“We all need to get along,” Retacco said. “We all need to respect each other, but one percent shouldn’t have to censor the entire show. And they did.”

At first, Retacco said he tried to track down the person who made the initial complaint about his work. He said he wanted to explain to the individual the meanings behind his art.

Mark Retacco's "End Hate Crimes" painting was shown to Judy Shepard
Mark Retacco’s “End Hate Crimes” painting was shown to Judy Shepard years prior

One of the three controversial pieces in Retacco’s retrospective, End Hate Crimes, is an acrylic painting on a 33×42 canvas initially completed in 1999. The artwork makes references to multiple violent tragedies that have occurred in the country due to hate. Specifically, End Hate Crimes references the murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard, as well as the Columbine massacre and the Trench Coat Mafia (TCM).

“At the top in the sunrise is James Byrd. He was murdered and drugged [sic] to his death because of KKK and hate. And of course, we know what happened to Matthew Shepard,” Retacco said. “They’re in two smaller images in the sunshine.”

He continued, “And I have a pick-up truck dragging the world down with a chain. I also have something called school crossings. And that was when the first Columbine massacre was, and they were called the Trench Coat Mafia back then…There’s a lot of detail involved. There’s a lot of messages.”

Retacco was unable to identify the complaint filer, and, for the sake of maintaining the peace, decided to take down Dawn, Dawn of the Digital Age, and End Hate Crimes. Although after doing so, Retacco came to a compromise of his own, one he believed would bring a solution to the problem.

“I said, ‘You know, as a courtesy, I’m going to take it down.’ And I took it down,” Retacco said. “But I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not fair to me.’ So, I put it back up, and I put brown paper over everything that they didn’t like, and I put ‘CENSORED 4/28/2023.’”

He continued, “And guess what? They took it back down again.”

Retacco’s decision to censor and hang back up his own work — with brown paper covering all sensitive material — did not appear to please the library. About four days after rehanging the work, Retacco said he received notice that the three paintings had been taken down. He was advised to come pick them up.

“So, I’m saying to myself, ‘Wait a minute. You asked me to take them down because you had an issue with the particular parts. And I put them back up with the censorship that you did, and you took them back down,’” Retacco said. “I refused to come pick them up once they took them down.”

There were multiple reasons Retacco was upset over this situation. He felt as though this controversy could have been prevented from the start.

Mark Retacco's "painting "Dawn of the digital age"
Mark Retacco’s “painting “Dawn of the digital age” was censored.

Back in November, Retacco said he submitted descriptions and images of all the artwork hanging his retrospective for approval. However, between then and now, the library had some staff changes, including the appointment of a new director, Susan Quinn.

Knowing this change might cause some confusion for the library system, Retacco said he attempted to reintroduce himself to the library and discuss his 2023 retrospective in-person. However, Retacco said his attempts to reach Director Quinn were dismissed.

“I wanted to give them the common courtesy and speak to her in-person and show her the artwork, but I was denied that option,” Retacco said. “I was given the bum’s rush.”

According to Quinn, the staffing changes in the library played a large role in this situation. She said she was unsure if there was a sufficient review process of Retacco’s work, and believes that’s something the library should address and adjust moving forward.

“There had been a staffing change, and I don’t think that process had happened, where the artist sits and reviews all his pieces and everything. But what I would say is, it’s something that we take very seriously at the library. So, I’m going to look at this as a way to maybe make a process improvement better because I do feel terrible that Mr. Retacco was upset,” Quinn said. “That was not the library’s intent. We’re trying to kind of create a balance of a welcoming environment for all people and for everyone.”

She continued, “So, that was just the situation. Hopefully it will be addressed, and we won’t have a situation again, which is upsetting for the artist and for us as well.”

As of June 1, both End Hate Crimes and Dawn have been reviewed and approved to be hung back up in Retacco’s show going forward. However, Dawn of the Digital Age is still under review.

Although the situation between Retacco and the library has been resolved, and both agree they have no hatred or malice toward each other, Retacco said he doesn’t believe he will hang up any of the three confrontational pieces again at any of the branches moving forward.

“I think I might save those for another show, perhaps a museum,” Retacco said.

Retacco is currently working with the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) to investigate this situation. He said he hopes the outcome prevents something like this from happening again.

“I think that you really have to sometimes light a fire,” Retacco said. “It is an educational learning curve for everybody, especially Ocean County.”