Los Angeles was once a virtual street art gallery, boasting hundreds of works by prominent artists such as Judy Baca, Frank Romero, Shepard Fairey and Saber. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, from Venice to Boyle Heights, city walls and stretches of freeway could be found illustrating themes of the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War activism and Chicano- and black-pride movements.
But for the past ten years, L.A.'s mural artists have had to contend with a poorly written ordinance that deems original outdoor art illegal by lumping it in with commercial signage. This has stymied the street art community and put treasured artworks in jeopardy.
How did this happen in a city once known as the street mural capitol of the world? Call it a bureaucratic collage. In the late '90s, 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 moratorium on murals of all kinds.
As a result, artists and property owners have been fined, over 300 murals have been painted over and cherished older works have been left to vandalizing and graffiti. In 2008, artist Kent Twitchell won a $1.1 million 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. Last week Councilman José Huizar announced a new draft ordinance that will allow murals to flourish once again in L.A. Aside from giving artists leeway to again take to the streets, he wants to provide more funding to kickstart new projects.
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. Among other guidelines, property owners must get a city permit, agree to maintain the work unchanged for five years, and may not accept money for the use of their space.
A mural would be approved if it reached the minimum requirements dictated by the ordinance, and Blackman said he understands nearby residents may have complaints about aesthetic. One regulation requires that muralists hold a community workshop where plans can be discussed. "Although it cannot serve as a veto, we hope it serves as a 'good neighbor' policy to allow people the forum for discussion," Blackman said.
Specifics in the ordinance offer little about limits to the subject matter of a mural. "What we want to do is allow artists to express themselves as freely as possible, within the confinements of the First Amendment" Councilman Huizar said.
However, whether someone can sidestep such limits remains to be seen. "It's kind of a dicey area already," Blackman said. "If I paint my home in zebra stripes – is that a mural or a paint job?"
The City Council hopes the ordinance 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, and does it belong on our city walls?
José Huizar, City Councilman, 14th District
Tanner Blackman, Los Angeles City Planner