Patt Morrison for October 28, 2011

LA contemplates protecting street murals

Rick Coca

Los Angeles City councilman Jose Huizar leans against “History of Highland Park” in Boyle Heights, a privately funded mural displayed on public property.


The cultural, religious and ethnic melting pot that is Los Angeles starts in Boyle Heights and emanates outward with murals.


In Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles, you see the history of the city unfold before your eyes.


A mural from Boyle Heights taken in March, 2011.

A graffiti attributed to secretive Briti


A graffiti attributed to secretive British artist Banksy shows a dog urinating on a wall in Beverly Hills, California on February 17, 2011.

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David McNew/Getty Images

Paint cracks and peels from a mural by the cylindrically-shaped Capitol Records building near the Hollywood landmark intersection of Hollywood and Vine on October 28, 2008 in Hollywood, California.

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Homeless people sit near a mural after waking up before dawn to dismantle their beds and encampments before businesses open October 12, 2007 in the downtown Skid Row area of Los Angeles, California.

A man walks in front of a mural celebrat

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

A man walks in front of a mural celebrating Banksy's Academy Award achievement signed by Mr. Brainwash in Los Angeles, California on February 17, 2011.

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A mural depicts the homeless carrying their belongings and rummaging through the trash July 13, 2004 in Venice, California.

Berlin-based French artist Thierry Noir,


Berlin-based French artist Thierry Noir, who was the first artist to paint murals on the Berlin Wall in 1984, puts the finishing touches on a section that was transported to Los Angeles for permanent display to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, on October 19, 2009.

View of a mural painting of 7-time Tour

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

View of a mural painting of 7-time Tour de France winner, Lance Armstrong, by Shepard Fairey on March 7, 2009, on the side of the historic Montalban Theatre in Hollywood, California, to celebrate Armstrong's return to the bike and to unveil a new collection of his sponsor, Nike Sportswear.

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is seen on

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Jazz musician Louis Armstrong is seen on a mural in Hollywood, California December 4, 2006. Until the 1960s, public murals in Los Angeles were few and far between, isolated instances of commemoration or appreciation.

A woman walks in front of a mural in Ven

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

A woman walks in front of a mural in Venice, California in December, 2006. Until the 1960s, public murals in Los Angeles were few and far between, isolated instances of commemoration or appreciation.

A mural in South Central Los Angeles, Ca

Hector Mata/AFP/Getty Images

A mural in South Central Los Angeles, California is shown 28 November 2006. South Central is a 40 mile square district in the city of Los Angeles betwen downtown and the port area of Long Beach.

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

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