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Virgin Of Guadalupe Mosaic Surfs Into Calif. Town

San Diego resident Brennan Savage  photographs his son, Liam, posing with the Madonna-surfing mosaic on Encinitas Boulevard's railroad bridge support.
Charlie Neuman
The San Diego Union-Tribune via ZUMA Press
San Diego resident Brennan Savage photographs his son, Liam, posing with the Madonna-surfing mosaic on Encinitas Boulevard's railroad bridge support.

The Virgin of Guadalupe been spotted on a piece of toast, a tortilla and a griddle in a U.S. border town. Now, she has shown up beneath a viaduct near the ocean in San Diego County.

It all started on the side of a busy road in Encinitas, Calif., underneath the train tracks. The story that's made its way around town is that on the Friday before Easter, a construction crew showed up and a 10 foot by 10 foot brightly colored mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe riding a surfboard and catching a huge wave seemed to mysteriously appear. Along the side, it says, "Save the Ocean."

"It definitely fits with the whole beach-city vibe down here," says Kyle Smith.

The mosaic is intricate and beautiful. The stones and glass the artist chose give the Virgin's face a sort of beatific look. Her hands even have stone knuckles.

The problem is that the piece just appeared. It's illegal.

Jim Gilliam, Encinitas' arts administrator, says the piece's guerrilla nature fits with the city's energy. "The chakras out in the ocean make this to be a vortex of creativity, and I think there has to be something legitimate to that because this is definitely a community that draws creative people," Gilliam says.

Encinitas Mayor James Bond says the piece "qualifies for graffiti." Bond says that because the artist ignored the city's rules, allowing the piece to stay would set a bad precedent.

A closeup of the Virgin's surfboard.
Amy Isackson / for NPR
for NPR
A closeup of the Virgin's surfboard.

"If I were an artist, I would think that anything I wanted to do, I could do anywhere I wanted to do it in the city. Because why? Because we left [the] Madonna there, so, why wouldn't we do that for everybody else?" Bond says.

Bond has received hundreds of emails about the mosaic. Most, he says, ask him to leave it be. But he says some caution that religious art has no place on public property. A few state that the piece is sacrilegious.

"So it puts us in an awkward position," Bond says.

'Get Up And Catch The Wave'

St John's Catholic Church is about a mile up the hill from the mosaic. The Rev. Brian Corcoran says he loves the piece so much he made it the cover of a recent church bulletin.

"I call her Our Lady of the Waves. If Our Lady of Guadalupe lived in Encinitas, she'd probably be surfing," Corcoran says.

Corcoran says a surfing Virgin isn't traditional. But he insists it is in keeping with what she represents. And, in this case, he says the message transcends religion.

"It could be anybody on the surfboard. Che Guevara, Buddha, Muhammad. You want to save this world? You want to save the ocean? You want to make a difference in this world? You want to change the economy? You want to change our society? You have to get involved. Get up and catch the wave," Corcoran says.

If Our Lady lived in Encinitas, she'd probably be surfing.

The mystery of the artist's identity has Encinitas buzzing.

A few people on the streets suggest confession would be a good way for the person to come forward. But Corcoran says that wouldn't work.

"That is between him and God or her and God, whoever it was. For confession, you have to be able to say, 'I'm not going to do it again.' And that's tough," he says.

Meanwhile, the City of Encinitas hasn't decided what to do with the piece. Officials are waiting for an art conservator to tell them whether it's possible to move it. The matter is on the agenda for a city council meeting on Wednesday.

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Amy Isackson