On the afternoon of May 24, a painted wooden tissue box appeared at Marine Monument at Park Semper Fi in San Clemente. The 4-cubic-foot-sized box contained a note explaining the artwork was intended “to pay tribute to marines who died fighting for America's freedom.” Markers hung from one corner, encouraging people to sign it.
Painted around the base were crumpled red roses, tattered marine boots, and helmets balanced on top of M-16s. One side depicted a mourning wife and child. The other three sides featured crosses with dog tags and the names of 10 fallen marines. Four were locals killed in combat; the remaining six were Pendleton marines killed in the recent helicopter crash over Nepal on May 12.
A local graffiti artist who goes by the handle Bandit said he intended the box to be an uncontroversial, patriotic art display. “We live in a marine town that has a big celebration every year on Memorial Day,” he told the Weekly in a recent interview. “I sought to create an image that served a purpose: to respect and lend honor to the lives lost and those affected by that loss.”
You'd think Bandit's efforts would have been celebrated in a town full of jarheads and their families, but instead, the box ignited a tenacious tug-of-war contest between the artist and city officials. In less than 36 hours, the box moved seven times and twice disappeared.
One of the first to see it was a marine named Josh Williams, age 25. Williams, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, circled the box with his family and wife, Lily. They all signed it with personal messages. The next person was ex-mayor and former City Council member Wayne Eggleston, who is also caretaker of the park and coordinator of the Memorial Day events. Eggleston was apoplectic with fury at what he perceived as an “act of vandalism.”
“This box belongs here,” countered a bewildered Williams, shaking his head. “It is a tribute, not an act of vandalism at all.”
At 2:30 p.m., the San Clemente sheriff blotter recorded a citizen complaining, “There was a large box, unaesthetically pleasing to the eye, in the way of an event he is hosting tomorrow.”
City worker Jim Smetona arrived. After phoning his maintenance superintendent, Randy Little, Smetona relayed his boss's response. “Public art in a public place,” Smetona announced. “I'm not moving that box. No laws are being broken.” Then he got in his truck and left.
“The box is where the band is going to play,” fumed Eggleston.
Cooperative plans to move the box ensued. First, three beefy marines helped to move it down the hill. But in the middle of the night, someone moved the box back; a note attached to it scolded the artist for not having official permission to display it there. At 6:34 the next morning, Smetona obeyed what he said were instructions to remove the box to the city yard.
The morning of Memorial Day, people arrived looking for the box, some of them presumably alerted to the project on Bandit's Instagram account, which has more than 2,000 followers. When they started asking where the box was, calls were made to the city, which agreed to return it to Bandit because it was his personal property. Thus the box returned to the bottom of the hill, and after the band played, it went back up to the top.
But at some point after midnight on May 26, the box once again disappeared. Although workers at the city yard initially denied they had the box, a few days later, they called Bandit and told him the box was ready for pick-up. “The purpose of the box was to honor those who fought for our freedom,” said Bandit. “Kinda ironic that displaying the box turned into a battle.”