Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Lawsuits and questions about the true nature of murals have confounded L.A. for a decade.
Once regarded as the mural capital of the world, Los Angeles in recent years has lost a good deal of its street art cred. Decades of loose regulation on signs and murals led to some creative law-skirting by outdoor advertising firms, bringing about a string of lawsuits and rule changes – and more lawsuits and more rule changes. The eventual result was an all-out moratorium on new murals.
City officials are now trying to welcome mural artists back with a proposed new ordinance. But this regulation battle still has to deal with the particularly pesky monkey on its back.
At its core, it all boils down to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
To promote the DVD release of the 2011 film, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment commissioned artist Anthony Lister last December to paint a mural based on the film on a high-profile wall along Melrose Avenue, one of L.A.'s busiest shopping areas. The wall has become well known as a canvas for a variety of prominent street artists to paint murals, each running only temporarily, then being replaced with the work of another artist. The works are sanctioned by the owners of the building, the De La Barracuda Boxing Club. To help pay for these works, the owners periodically allow commercial works such as the Planet of the Apes mural to effectively rent the wall space. The line that this piece treads between art and advertising is the key confusion in L.A.'s internal battle with murals.
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
This wall was a recurring point of contention at a recent community meeting about the proposed mural ordinance. A panel including artists Shepard Fairey and Saber kicked things off by delving into their issues with codifying art and why the distinction between commercial and artistic expression is particularly sensitive in this case – mainly because the two can be co-dependent. Fairey argues that unless the building owner can rent the wall for pieces like the Planet of the Apes ad, non-commercial art may not be able to exist there.
"It's folded into his program. It's subsidizing his ability to support artists. So to prevent him from being able to do that would actually harm the art community," Fairey said.
Saber agreed: "It's his damn building. He should be able to do what the hell he wants with it."
For opponents of the Planet of the Apes mural, the issue goes much deeper than one building. Questions over the difference between art and advertisements – and exactly what a "mural" is – have plagued the city for decades.
Prior to 1986, there were no rules on the books concerning murals in Los Angeles. This relative freedom enabled a boom of murals in the city, especially during the late '60s and early '70s, led by a wave of Chicano artists. From the famous walls of the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights to South L.A. to East L.A. and downtown, hundreds of murals were painted during these years, many of which remain today.
"This city is like a living museum of murals. It's not unlike Florence or Paris, you look around and you have all this art all over," says Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
But around this same time, those loose rules were also creatively interpreted by advertisers, who were using hand-painted signage to promote various products. The city, seeking to stop advertisers from taking advantage of the system, tried to make new rules to govern where "signs" could be placed in the city, with an exemption for the murals that had been included in that umbrella term.
In the late 1990s, the city was sued by the outdoor advertising industry, which argued that the city was unconstitutionally privileging one type of protected speech – murals – over another – advertising. As a result, the city enacted a ban on signage – including murals – in 2002. The rules were then adjusted, creating "sign districts" where signs and murals and billboards would be allowed. But what tended to happen in these districts is that large developments included space for signs, and that space tended to be allocated to paying advertisers rather than non-paying artists. As a result, large ads and billboards started popping up all over these areas, prompting outrage from many residents.
Since then, the city's signage drama has continued. Even with the introduction of brash new electronic billboards and building-sized "supergraphics," the city council still hasn't passed a new sign ordinance to clear the line between ads and murals. But in an effort to end the confusion, the Department of City Planning has undertaken an effort to amend the zoning code to make it easier to legally paint murals once again.
Tanner Blackman of the city's planning department has been leading the effort to rewrite the rules. The goal, he says, is to allow residents and business owners to have murals painted on their own property. But given the city's history of dealing with signs and ads and murals and lawsuits, re-crafting those rules hasn't been as simple as it would seem.
"The big fear from our city attorney's office, due to the past history of litigation, is that whatever kind of mural program we create is going to be perverted and subverted for commercialization and advertising. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid," Blackman says.
To do that, the rule change lays out a new definition of "original art murals" and requires, among other stipulations, that a piece remains in place for at least five years – a time limit intended to prevent advertisers from repainting murals again and again with new commercial messages. The rule also calls for a $199 administrative permitting fee for new murals, which has predictably drawn complaints from artists.
Some residents say they worry that the definition of an "original art mural" can still be interpreted in a way that allows commercial enterprises to sneak in ad-like murals. As one noted at the recent public hearing, some artists, like Fairey, have built successful businesses out of their street art, and murals by these artists, with familiar iconography or branding, could be interpreted as advertisements. In his own defense, Fairey argued that his art shouldn't be distilled as a commercial enterprise just because he's been able to build a successful business out of it.
"It’s a byproduct of what I do out of passion," says Fairey. "It's not because my goal in doing street art is to advertise what I might also make on a poster that I sell on my website or a t-shirt that I produce. You could be a completely cynical asshole and say that, and that's fine. That's your prerogative to do that."
The debate hasn't all been so nasty. Artists throughout the city have attended public meetings and offered input on the wording of the proposed ordinance, says Blackman. A new muralist group, the United Painters and Public Artists, has also popped up in recent months to bring more attention to the issue and the concerns of all muralists in the city, not just those with international reputations.
Rojas-Williams of the Mural Conservancy says that it is these younger or lesser-known artists who can help bring the city back to its former glory as a mural capital. The new ordinance, she says, is crucial to making that happen.
"There are many blank walls in the city," Rojas-Williams says. "There are many, many organizations that are willing to commission both the older generation and the younger generation of artists to paint new murals or to restore murals."
She's confident the ordinance will pass. Blackman agrees that when it gets to the city council in the next month or two, it will likely be approved.
"Normally it's like 'how can we get to 8?'" Blackman says of the majority needed among the city's 15 council members. "In this case, a majority of them are clamoring for it. It's like 'when can we get it done?'"
After a decade with few new murals being painted and a lawsuit-laden cloud hanging over all issues with signs and billboards and murals in the city, city council members aren't the only ones ready for the rules to be refined.
Top image: Lucy Richardson/Reuters