A nose ripped off. An ear missing. Arms torn off at the shoulder. This isn’t a scene from a bad war movie. It’s the harsh reality of life on the street for dozens of life-sized sculpted pandas displayed across the city.
“It started with some graffiti, so we were able to pretty much clean that off,” said Yann Doignon, a program associate with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. “But some were pretty badly damaged. Parts of the pandas were destroyed. A dozen have been vandalized pretty badly.”
Among the injuries are a severed foot from the sculpture titled “Booted,” mosaic tiles removed from “Coin Panda,” a burned stomach on “Rail Fence Panda” and ears hacked off from several pandas. The pandas are currently awaiting treatment at the Panda Hospital, located at the GW-owned 2000 Penn mall.
Officials with the commission said they originally left the damaged pandas on the street, but as the situation worsened, they knew they had to move them to a safer place.
“I kind of left one or two on the street thinking we could get them repaired, but it got worse,” commission program manager Alexandra MacMaster said. “I decided that it was time to find a location.”
The commission already had a relationship with 2000 Penn because it housed damaged sculptures of donkeys and elephants there during the Commission’s 2002 “Party Animal” exhibition.
“Basically it started with the Party Animals … they had a couple vandalized and damaged and needed a place where the artists could work on them and repair them that was under cover and had security, which is what we have here,” 2000 Penn general manager Fred Paine said.
“We sort of helped them out of a bind and have continued with the pandas,” he added. “We look at it as a benefit to our property.”
The pandas that still have mouths greet passersby, seemingly undaunted by their trauma. At the hospital, the pandas will undergo structural repairs next week at the hands of Howard Connelly, the pandas’ resident doctor.
“Well, there’s ears missing, there’s arms broken, and whole mouths and noses gone, so some of them will need some re-sculpting and some matching of the shapes,” Connelly said.
Doignon said the pandas, stationed throughout the city, lead people to walk to parts of the city that they would not typically frequent. “A lot of people just love them. People take a map and just explore the different parts of the city where they would never normally go,” Doignon said. “They discover the city and discover art.”
Building on the success of “Party Animals,” the city commissioned 150 pandas that were placed throughout D.C. starting in May. Most sculptures can be found in popular tourist destinations and upscale northwest neighborhoods such as Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle and Georgetown. In late September, the animals will be put on the auction block to benefit the city’s arts and education programs.
But placing the pandas around the city has its drawbacks. Arts commission officials have noticed that many of the pieces that have been attacked are stationed near bars, nightclubs and other hotspots.
“In the last month it got pretty bad,” Doignon said. “I don’t know if it’s the heat or the alcohol late at night. Most of the pandas vandalized were in locations where there are a lot of bars and it’s late at night. People just get boozed up and like to have fun.”
MacMaster agreed that there is a relationship between the pandas’ location and vandalism.
“The dynamics of Washington have changed,” she said. “With the development that has come along downtown at H Street, where there were quite a few damaged, they have a lot more clubs where people come out, get drunk, don’t know what they’re doing, and take it out on whatever is near them.”
The damage extends beyond vandalism. In July, thieves were able to make off with a 900-pound panda stationed in front of the Washington Hilton at the corner of Connecticut and Florida avenues. Police are on the hunt for the orange and red creature, and the commission is offering $1,000 dollars for its safe return.
At an average cost of $400 per repair, the commission does not view the attacks as harmless pranks. Since they are going to be auctioned off for charity, the pandas need to be in prime condition, so the Arts Commission toyed with the idea of removing the pandas from the street and putting them in a safer location.
“We had a discussion about that with the staff and the board at a point when it was getting bad,” Doignon said. “We’re auctioning them off, but even if we repair them, it’s expensive, and it’s a real pain in the neck.”
The damage also affects the artists, who have to make repairs to their creations after already spending days of work on the pandas. Greg Scott, who works at the Children’s National Medical Center, painted “Jazz-E Panda,” who greeted pedestrians at Caf? Milano at 3251 Prospect St. before being transported to the Panda Hospital.
“Every Saturday morning I would go over there and wash it down,” Scott said. “One morning I came in and someone had taken a sharp instrument and broken his arm off at the elbow. I was a little upset for two or three weeks.
“It just hurt my feelings that all the children enjoyed the pandas,” he continued. “The grownups too, but the children were really fascinated by all the styles.”
Anne Currie, an art professor at a community college in Virginia, spent a month working on her panda with student Chad Lewis. Their creation, Cro-Magnon Panda, features birds resting on the shoulders of a panda that bears a resemblance to a caveman. Its ears were removed and the sculpted birds were knocked off.
Since she lives so far away, she never got to see her creation in Dupont Circle before it was attacked. Despite her disappointment, Currie said she enjoyed the opportunity traveling to Foggy Bottom to repair it.
“In going over to work on it, it’s given me a chance to walk in that neighborhood again,” she said. “It’s a good neighborhood, and I think it must be a fabulous place to work.”
Public support for the project has been so great, Doignon said, the arts commission decided to leave them on display.
“Even if some people damage them, we got such positive response. People write letters and call. They were really sad about the Panda Hospital. But we’re going to leave them in the street … because the project is made for the public.”
Arts commission officials said that vandalism against the pandas began as soon as they were put on display, but over the last few weeks they have noticed less vandalism. They hope this trend will continue.
“I think people are used to them,” MacMaster said.