UPDATE #2: What in the actual fuck they’re taking it down and changing it. Mary Louise Schumacher has more.

UPDATE #1: Mary Louise Schumacher has a response to the “controversy” from two gallery owners speaking on Jaume Plensa’s behalf.

If you’ve paid a visit to Shorewood’s Atwater Park in the past few years, you’ve surely seen “Spillover II,” an 8-foot-tall sculpture of random steel letters in the shape of a human body peering out over Lake Michigan. Created by renowned Spanish artist Jaume Plensa (he of the interactive Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park), the sculpture is no stranger to controversy. Village of Shorewood residents protested the privately gifted public art piece in 2009, claiming it would be a safety hazard and an eyesore; when the sculpture was finally installed in 2010, Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher blasted its ugly concrete base and poor placement. Now, a New Jersey photographer by the name of Matt Sweetwood is claiming there are—get ready for this—anti-Semitic messages hidden in the sculpture’s seemingly haphazard jumble of letters. Buckle up, “Bible Code” and seeing-the-Virgin-Mary-in-a-piece-of-toast aficionados. This one’s right up your alley!

According to Sweetwood’s post on his personal site (“Hateful Sculpture in Milwaukee (Shorewood) Wisconsin Needs to be Scrapped”) and a blog called Good Men Project (“How I Discovered Hate in Plain Sight on a Popular Sculpture”), the photographer was recently in town visiting his daughter for her birthday. During a trip to Atwater Park with his son-in-law, Sweetwood began snapping pictures of Plensa’s “Spillover II.” It was then that, after a mere 30 seconds of studying the sculpture, Sweetwood noticed “the letters on the northern side were not random at all.” Here are the three “hateful phrases” he found in the letters:

“Cheap Jew”
“Fry Bad Jew”
“Dead Jew”

(Click here for Sweetwood’s photo of those alleged phrases, “highlighted for clarity.”)

Sweetwood was “disgusted,” and has since sent a letter to the Village of Shorewood demanding the removal of the sculpture. “As a Jew from New Jersey, I prefer this kind of hate said directly to me,” he writes. “But this artist is a coward, so he sculpts his hate and runs away.”

So, are there anti-Semitic phrases hidden in “Spillover II”? Or, more likely, is the whole thing indeed one of those “Bible Code” deals where you can take a bunch of random letters and find shit like “DALLAS 1963 MOTORCADE” and “TOWERS FALL BUSH”? I paid a visit to Atwater Park this morning to find out.

I wasn’t alone. When I arrived at 8 a.m. there was already a middle-aged man and an elderly woman inspecting the sculpture. Soon, a 30-something man joined us. After a few moments, we found the section in question:


Here it is again, “highlighted for clarity”:


So, yeah, if you’re inspecting the sculpture with the express purpose of finding “Fry Bad Jew” or “Cheap Jew,” it’s not that hard. The middle-aged man, who informed me he was Jewish, seemed convinced. “I think we deserve an explanation,” he said. The elderly woman wasn’t impressed, and spent her time finding other words in the jumble, like “Cow” and “MKE.” The 30-something dude was pissed. “I can’t believe our tax dollars paid for this!” When I informed him it was privately funded, he grumbled something about that being “even worse.”

To my eyes, there are plenty of problems with the “hidden messages.” For one, seeing “Bad” requires you to lose the “Z” between the “B” and the “A.” And the “P” in “Cheap” isn’t a “P” at all, but a connected “N” and “D.” And you need to do some serious spacial gymnastics if you want to see “Dead.” With that logic, you can see “Fry Bad Jew” if you want, or, you know, “Frqb Zeanp.”


Then there’s the fact that you can find just about anything in this mass of letters. Here’s “Steam,” “Stem,” and “Jam”:


Here’s “Chops” (just turn the “Q” into an “O”) and Milwaukee-based avant-garde jazz label Utech Records:


Here’s, I dunno, “Plows Dr. Marc”:


And here’s an insidious spoiler to the end of Citizen Kane:


So, yeah, you get the point.

My conclusion: Like the Bible Code and the “prophesies” of Nostradamus, the whole thing is a combination of random chance and selective thinking. Want to find hidden messages? Just move some letters around, skip a few, turn an “H” into an “S,” and you have the lyrics to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I explained my rationale to the middle-aged man, who seemed to be growing more skeptical. As he was leaving, he received a text message from his son (“A big-time Jew!” he informed me). “Don’t forget, dad, it probably also says ‘Fuck’ and ‘Cunt.’”

Sadly, I couldn’t find those words. But rest assured they’re in there.


(Listen to me discuss the “controversy” on an episode of The Disclaimer here.)