Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

Did police criticism prompt San Mateo to cancel artist Diego Marcial Rios’ show?

Diego Marcial Rios, who lives and works in the East Bay city of Newark, has built up a body of provocative art over a decades-long career. | Source: Diego Marcial Rios

When the city of San Mateo offered Diego Marcial Rios space in a group exhibition, the veteran Bay Area artist was pleased that some 20 pieces of his were accepted into the monthlong display at City Hall.

Rios, who gives his age as “currently in my 60s,” lives and works in the East Bay city of Newark. He’s been showing artwork since he was in his 20s at major and minor American museums—including San Francisco’s own Legion of Honor—and as widely as Bulgaria and Japan. 

A painter and sculptor who grapples with mythmaking and the aesthetics of the Mayans and Aztecs, Rios sees himself in the lineage of social-realist Mexican muralists and painters Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. As such, he is no stranger to hot-button themes.

“If you Google my name, you get a zillion hits,” Rios told The Standard. “So there’s no secret to me being a political artist.”

On July 18, Rios went to San Mateo City Hall with his wife, hung the art and left. Trouble began almost immediately. 

“I get a weird call from someone there at the art gallery saying, ‘There’s a couple objections to your artwork. Can you switch it out?’” Rios recounted. “I get this all the time.”

Typically, Rios said, he’s happy to quietly swap pieces out. 

But when he followed up, he said he couldn’t reach anyone from the city. The only way he found out any controversy existed was through a July 19 email from Fox News, which he shared with The Standard. In it, a reporter asks for comment “regarding the backlash from the San Mateo Police Department.” 

By then, the controversy had already boiled over. 

Rios' 10-by-10 inch painting "Stop Killing Us" | Source: Diego Marcial Rios
Rios' 10-by-10 inch painting “Will Kill Mexicans and Blacks Cheap!” | Source: Diego Marcial Rios

Eventually, Rios was able to speak with a librarian, who provided some context. The fracas had stemmed from two of the pieces he submitted, both of which he said measured 10-by-10 inches and bore attention-grabbing names: “Stop Killing Us” and “Will Kill Mexicans and Blacks Cheap!” 

The message of the latter painting is unambiguous. It depicts a skeleton in a police uniform running over bloody corpses, pepper spray in hand. 

“My art, if you look at my other work, it’s extremely detailed and technical and exacting,” Rios said. “If you’re a big, tough police officer, that would ruffle your feathers? Two little damn paintings at a city art gallery would motivate you to call Fox?”

In the meantime, the City Hall Exhibits page on the city of San Mateo’s website now reads: “The City’s public art exhibit space program has been suspended until further notice. We will be reevaluating the program and provide an update when we are able.” The city also issued a brief statement noting that its public arts program has been suspended.

Rios' invitation to the opening of the now-canceled show. | Source: Diego Marcial Rios

Reached for comment, San Mateo’s interim city manager Christina Horrisberger disputed parts of Rios’ account, claiming the vetting process was based on small samples of the artists’ work with limited staff oversight. 

“Diego Marcial Rios applied for the program and submitted a limited sampling of his work before being selected to participate,” she told The Standard. “Much of the artwork he hung at City Hall had not been seen by the committee or city staff prior to it being displayed, including several pieces of work with a variety of strong political connotations, which included some with anti-police sentiments.”

Horrisberger stated that library staff made a good-faith effort to contact Rios and only responded to media requests after speaking with him first. She also emphasized that the reaction against his two pieces came from “numerous people in the community, including members of the public and staff from several departments.”

When The Standard asked if police officers were among the staff who voiced complaints, Horrisberger confirmed that they were.

Rios said he was going to pick up his work later this week, and that he had not been able to obtain any further details about the exhibition’s sudden cancellation. Wryly, he observed that the art was “doing its job.”

“The object of political art is to instill thought and discussion,” he said. “We’d have no museums at all if someone objected to everything! Nothing to display whatsoever.”

Astrid Kane can be reached at