In early May, Ryan Podesta, owner of tactical sports store Thirty First Outfitters, commissioned a graphic designer to paint a mural on his storefront in downtown Cotati.
The mural, which depicted a cartoon skeleton named Barnabus wearing a cowboy hat brandishing two guns in the desert, was meant to be fun and capture the town’s Wild West spirit, Podesta said.
But days after its completion, another deadly mass shooting shook the nation. On May 24, 19 children and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, by an 18-year-old wielding an AR-15 type rifle.
The Thirty First Outfitters mural was suddenly the subject of outrage from residents who advocated for its removal, many fearing their children would be exposed to what they saw as a depiction of gun violence.
On the Nextdoor app, a social platform that connects neighborhoods, those against art censorship began to argue with those in favor of its removal.
“It started to come to life on social media, as things tend to do,” Cotati Mayor Mark Landman said.
Podesta began receiving vandalism and boycott threats against his business. And the fresco was vandalized twice.
“The level of anger that prompted people was literally off the charts,” he said.
Landman began to receive complaints about the mural and its location in La Plaza Park, with guns appearing to be aimed at a playground across the plaza, he said.
Cotati resident Maria León walked past the mural the day after the Texas shooting and was shocked.
“I love art. I was actually really excited, at first, to hear that someone had painted a mural there,” said Leon, who moved from Oakland to Cotati he a year ago with her husband and 2-year-old daughter “But the content and its placement made me quite uncomfortable.”
She stopped going to the playground with her daughter. Hoping to have a productive discussion about the mural, she posted on Nextdoor and submitted a comment to Cotati City Council.
“Thought you might like to know that in general people in the community seem to be shocked and offended by (the mural),” she wrote in a message to Landman.
Landman said he understands the concerns.
“The last few years have been a stressful time, and most people, I think it’s fair to say, are on their last nerve,” he said. “It would be easy for something like this to turn into a culture war.”
Faced with community anger, Podesta decided to repaint the mural.
Mural artist Vinnie Schraner, the Rohnert Park-based designer behind Schravin Graphic Arts, said the mural was not intended to create controversy.
“I think it’s quite a sensitive climate these days,” he said. “I don’t really take it personally.
“We just thought it best to cover it before we had to.”
Podesta, a former paintball world champion, opened Thirty First Outfitters 10 years ago. He also owns Playland, a paintball and airsoft center in Petaluma.
Podesta has donated to school programs, grad night, the Cotati Accordion Festival and more, Landman said.
“I was so impressed with the owner of the business, Mr. Podesta,” Landman said. “I would like to thank him for all he does for the community.”
When León saw that the skeleton had been repainted, “I just couldn’t believe the issue had been resolved as quickly and as peacefully as it was,” she said.
She thanked the owner and has since returned to regularly visit the playground with her daughter.