HIGHLAND PARK — Borough police have launched an investigation after xenophobic graffiti was spray-painted onto a new mural celebrating local refugee and asylum resettlement efforts in Highland Park.

The Highland Park Police Department said it was actively investigating two incidents of criminal mischief to the mural on the side of 75 Raritan Avenue, which had been completed less than two days earlier.

It was commissioned by The Shelter Project, a team that includes faculty from Rutgers University and New Brunswick Theological Seminary.

“During the course of the mural installation over the past two weeks, the artist was directly racially harassed on three distinct occasions, and for the first time in her career felt in danger while installing a work of art,” according to coLAB Arts, the artist collective that helped support the artwork.

"Home is Where We Make It" had been up for less than 48 hours when “USA" was found spray painted across the face of a woman wearing a hijab on Friday morning, according to coLAB Arts Producing Director Dan Swern.

Sometime between 7 — 10 p.m. Friday, two Stars of David were also spray-painted across the same woman’s face, he said.

During the installation, the artist herself experienced repeated racial harassment, including being called a racist and nazi "by individuals demanding white representation in the mural,' Swern continued.

Highland Park mural (via Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, Facebook)
Highland Park mural, before defacement (via Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, Facebook)

An interfaith vigil was set for Monday evening at 7 p.m. to denounce “this deplorable act, to express support for our Muslim and refugee neighbors (and all for whom this act is public terrorism),” the collective continued, “and to grapple with meaningful, antiracist commitments we can make moving forward.”

The Raritan Valley Orthodox Jewish Community Association, Reformed Church of Highland Park, Masjid-e-Ali Mosque, Unitarian Society of East Brunswick, Black Community Watchline and Middlesex Black-Jewish Coalition were among those planning to join Monday's vigil.

Local police have been in contact with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office regarding the defacement.

Anyone with information is urged to call the Highland Park Police Department at 732-572-3800, including any surveillance camera footage or images.

Potential tips also could be emailed to detectives@hpboro.com

“Highland Park is a diverse community of approximately 15,000 residents whose ancestral roots can be traced to a myriad of countries throughout the world,” Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler said in a Facebook post welcoming the mural on April 27, before the graffiti was discovered.

“Our varying ethnicities, religions and cultures are woven into the very fabric of our community and can be easily identified by the many different foods found in restaurants throughout our downtown and in the public art that adorns some of our buildings, private home front lawns, and street benches,” Mittler also said.

“Just as so many of our ancestors fled persecution and poverty and came to the United States because of what this country represents, so too do the current waves of refugees – from the Middle East, from Africa, and other places, take risks to get here,” the mayor continued. “They have come here because of what this country represents to the world - things like freedom, second chances, an openness to diversity, and the rewards of hard work. And, they chose to settle in Highland Park because of who we are as a community. We should all be proud of that.”

Erin Vogt is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at erin.vogt@townsquaremedia.com

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