"Free the Merf" Defaces Phil Berwick's Street Art



Once Phil Berwick’s “Merferd” appeared on the cover of last week’s Riverfront Times, the timer was set: there was absolutely going to be a response to the offbeat street art character’s sudden fame, and that response was almost certainly going to involve more paint.

This past weekend, the largest guerilla series of Merferds in town was painted over, in blocky roller-streaks of white. Berwick had previously painted a small grove of half-man/half-tree Merferds on a series of “panels” set within the old storefronts of the long three-story building on Grand, just south of Gravois. They’re still there, the Merferds, only now they're obscured by those hasty white-outs, along with a singular message: “Free The Merf,” done in a similar, slightly-bubbled style to St. Louis' prolific Free The Herb tags. Clearly, this was not the work of the city's anti-graffiti Operation Brightside.

Perhaps the mystery someone (or someones) wielding the paint roller was responding to Berwick's admission, within the RFT piece, that he enthusiastically paints over other street art that he finds negative or coarse. (That practice flies in the face of the unwritten code that guides graffiti artists.) Or maybe they just don't appreciate his high profile.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Berwick says he's been treated to a few additional reports of cover-ups, though he says that the response to his work, on balance, has been more than a little bit positive. There have been invites to speak at schools, dozens of autographed Merferds whipped up on the spot, a never-ending supply of personal correspondence.

“I’m just blown away by this week,” he says. “I’m literally just amazed. And I guess the best response is when people go away and have a good feeling. … Seeing the responses of how people are bummed that he’s gone (on Grand) makes me feel that there was a lesson to having him on that desolate corner.”

Though abandoned for a good decade, the large structure at 3608 South Grand had a long, storied history in its corner of south St. Louis, initially as a moviehouse. According to the website Cinema Treasures, “The Melba Theatre was opened on November 29, 1917. After adding a long succession of neighborhood houses, Fred Wehrenberg acquired the Melba Theatre. The 1,190-seat house on Grand Avenue had an airdome next to it. During warm evenings, shows would be stopped in the auditorium, and film reels carried to the airdome. The movie would then continue in the cooler outdoors.”

In the ‘70s, it housed the popular pizzeria, Pizza-A-Go-Go, itself a business refugee from Gaslight Square. In the 1990s, a small music club called Johnny’s found a short-lived run on the southern end of the half-block-long building. During that same era, a second-floor pool hall was reputedly the social hangout of the notorious Vietnamese stick-up crew, The Black String. Today, though, it maintains a years-long hibernation, awaiting a new life as something, anything other than a canvas for street art.

While discussing the cover-up of the Merferds, Berwick pivots the conversation. As hinted to in last week’s story, Berwick sees Merferds as a standard-bearer, a positive message against the violence that he sees as endemically tied to St. Louis’ history and culture.

“Underlining it all, I want the killings to stop,” he say, “and rather than being a city of mistrust and fear, that we become a city that’s brother for brother. Missouri has a stigma, dating all the way back to the Civil War, that it’s a place of brother vs. brother. That’s the reality of this state. And that’s why Merferd, a lot of times, just has his arms out, not saying anything.

“The white-outs of the Merferds are no big deal. Really, no big deal at all. What we should be sad about are lives blotted out. I can go down there tomorrow and paint the Merferds back, twice as big. But when a light is gone, it’s gone.”


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