For the past ten years, L.A.’s mural artists have had to contend with a poorly written ordinance that deems outdoor art illegal by lumping it in with commercial signage. How did this happen in a city once known as the street mural capitol of the world?
In the late nineties, outdoor billboard companies sued the city for restricting street advertising, claiming First Amendment right to commercial speech. The resulting proliferation of billboards and confusion over what constitutes commercial art led to an out-and-out ban on murals of all kinds. As a result, property owners have been subject to heavy fines for having wall art on their property, over 300 murals have been painted over and cherished older works have been left to vandalizing and graffiti.
Los Angeles was once a virtual street art gallery, boasting hundreds of works by prominent artists such as Frank Romero, Shepard Fairey and Saber. But over the years, many of its most famous works have been destroyed or painted over.
In 2008, artist Kent Twitchell won a $1.1 million dollar settlement against the U.S. government for painting over his work on a downtown L.A. building. This year, a Valley Village resident was fined $360 by the Building and Safety Department and forced to obliterate a mural she’d commissioned on her fence.
Yesterday, Councilman Jose Huizar announced a new draft ordinance that will allow murals to flourish once again in L.A. The ordinance, spearheaded by City Planner and art lover Tanner Blackman, is modeled after one in Portland, Oregon which aims to protect original works of art by distinguishing them from commercial signage. Property owners must get a city permit, agree to maintain the work for five years, and may not accept money for the use of their space.
The City Council hopes this will put to rest a long-time legal battle and restore beauty to city walls. Street artists and the art community have applauded the move.
Will we see a new generation of muralists beautifying the streets of L.A.? Would you welcome murals in your neighborhood? Can the ordinance prevent the creep of commercialism onto buildings and fences? What defines art?
Jose Huizar, City Councilman, 14th District