Los Angeles is known as the mural capital of the country but these works of art enjoy no special protection as they come under the same category as advertising. A new proposal to revise this classification is being considered by the L.A. City Council.
Street artists have used L.A. walls as a public canvas to express their culture, history and political struggles for decades. The city all but endorsed this renegade art form in the late '80s issuing a blanket exemption for outdoor murals.
But in 2002, the love affair ended after the outdoor advertising industry sued to get equal protection for billboards. Today murals are, for the most part, only legal on public property. If they are commissioned, the city can take a heavy-handed approach to enforcement.
As many as 300 murals may have been lost in the last several years due to the new policy, and that has frustrated some city council members who want to preserve them. Valley Village resident Barbara Black felt she had no choice but to paint over a mural she commissioned because the Department of Building and Safety threatened her with a $1,925 fine.
Well-known street artist Saber said, “They buff beautiful pieces, harass property owners and threaten us like we are in street gangs."
Now the city is considering drawing a distinction between murals, which should be protected as art, and advertisements.
L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar is behind the effort to revise the legislation. He wants to afford protection to murals, but says that the First Amendment protection of free speech doesn't allow distinctions based on speech content. In this case, non-commercial speech, such as murals, cannot be favored over commercial speech, such as outdoor billboards.
Huizar says the City Council is considering a solution that would distinguish between murals and outdoor advertising while avoiding legal issues.
“What we think is going to happen now as we’re redoing our sign ordinance, the city is going to have a much more defined way of where signs can and can’t go up and where murals are allowed,” he said.
For murals on private property, Huizar says the city is considering a public art permit where the city will get an easement from the property owner. Then the owner will have to undergo a community process where he or she will detail what the mural will be about and how long it will be up. After the permit is granted, the artist is free to put up a mural on that property.
Man One, a muralist who serves on the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department’s Mural Working Group, is glad that the city is revising the legislation, which he says has restricted his creativity and livelihood.
“As an artist what I’d like to see is the path of least resistance,” he says, “where you can just walk up and get permission from an owner, fill out a simple form and get a permit so you can go ahead and do your thing.”
Man One says the restriction on murals has also robbed the city of historical and cultural art.
“I grew up in a city where I saw huge murals painted by Chicano artists from the ‘70s. I was inspired by that. That showed me the beauty of what muralism could be and gave me the inspiration to go ahead and become an artist.“
Huizar, who grew up in mural-centric Boyle Heights, says Los Angeles wants to cultivate art rather than be inundated with more outdoor advertising.
“We want to promote murals and that’s what this mural ordinance is trying to do – is to allow our artists to give back,” he says, “We don’t want to lose another generation of wonderful artists who are out there doing great things.”
KPCC's Fareeha Molvi contributed to this report.
Should the walls be given back?
Jose Huizar, Los Angeles City Councilman, CD-14 Boyle Heights
Man One, artist, muralist and gallery director of Crewest Art Gallery