LA Gets Testy Over a New Mural Law

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MAILANDER’S LA - Shepard Fairey's non-permitted, privately hustled, private property mural "Make Art, Not War"--situated on a previously blank wall of an art store on Tracy Avenue in Los Feliz--may be the top case-in-point regarding why the City of Los Angeles does not need Councilmember Jose Huizar's pending private space mural control and design review ordinance.

Or, it may be exactly why it needs it.

Fairey, originally the sticker-bombing "Obey Giant" graffiti punk from Rhode Island School of Design who went on to pop culture status--or pop culture status quo, some detractors would say--as the designer of Obama's famous 2008 "Hope" poster, saw a blank wall on the edge of Silver Lake and also saw opportunity.  The proprietors of Baller Art Store at Tracy near Hyperion were only too anxious to allow their wall to be festooned by Fairey's atelier.

Huizar, the beleaguered Eastside Councilmember who went 0-7 in endorsements in the recently passed election, wants to make a fresh start.  In fact, he was hoping to put some kind of consensus over private property murals together in the final days of this Council.  But that didn't happen, and he'll have to work with at least five and maybe six new Councilmembers in July to get an ordinance together on how the City might better handle murals on private property.

But he also knows that an ordinance pending in City Council may, in trying to grab more civic control of murals, ironically make it more difficult for the top strata of street artists to operate in town without the right permit and with administrators looking over their shoulder.

Tailoring neighborhood to mural through administrative means might be Huizar's biggest challenge when putting a new mural ordinance together.  Every community has a different threshold of acceptance for murals.  On the Eastside, murals are not only prevalent but graffiti murals are common, but on the Westside and in Anglo pockets of the Valley, such murals communicate a message of Latino ascendancy, and even a stigma of lawlessness.

Adding a layer of complexity, coming out of some recent court cases, the City feels it needs to make a distinction between what's a billboard and what's a mural, and Huizar's ordinance might be a way to achieve that.

Many Angelenos of every heritage associate murals to Los Angeles to a golden age of Mexican American wall art from the 1930's forward.  But more recently, former Cultural Affairs chief Al Nodal brought all kinds of murals, including graffiti murals, up to city specs in the 1990's, and worked hard to create a highly visible civic role for murals across LA. 

In the wake of this legacy, regardless of permit status, many of the City's long-standing murals are among its best loved, and far more respected in their own communities than, say, most Caltrans freeway murals from the 1980's are, even though the residue of the Caltrans program--often tagged often beyond recognition--are also still evident on all over our top-traveled arteries.

Outgoing Councilmember Ed Reyes, who hopes to see the next convening of Council pass an ordinance regulating private property murals, sees another opportunity in codification of private space murals: social progress.

"I think it’s going to be an opportunity to find places ... where messages that lead to violence may be curtailed," Reyes told me. "There are certain spaces, there are certain garages, there are certain alleys where, if you put an artistic piece there, the people there are going to know that we know that we are looking there, inspiring people who might otherwise look away [from crime]."

Reyes thinks that a good solution would be to make an ordinance barely flexible enough that it could be overwritten by an overlay zone if some parts of town didn't want it.  "If you want to restrict it, you do so by creating an overlay," he told me.

"This is America.  This is free speech," Carol Ann Blanding of Baller told me of their Fairey mural.  "It brought a lot of people together."

Fairey’s Obama Hope poster did too, even if he was later sued by Associated Press for knocking off an image.

There’s an elaborate, barely legal apology for this on Fairey’s website—the same website that also proclaims Fairey to have been “manufacturing quality dissent since 1989.”  When you're working for the President, is it really dissent anymore?

The tightrope walk along the equally dull chasms of lawful and lawless never stops for Fairey.  You can bet that wherever Huizar and Council try to move the line, Fairey and those who knock him off will follow suit and try to perch themselves right on it, rather than either within the confines of the law or completely outside of it.

Indeed, Fairey’s lawless Los Feliz mural, unpermitted yet beloved by pasty white homeowners and landed politicians alike, became a local landmark nearly instantly.  Even Councilman Tom LaBonge's brother Mark was glad to have a photo of himself taken in front of it in its early days.

It's already been tagged once, by someone who didn’t like the message.  But Fairey's crew takes care of that more speedily than, say, the CalTrans crew on the freeways can when their murals are tagged.

It didn't matter to anyone of note in the neighborhood that the mural had secured no City permits. There was no design review, no city committee looking over Fairey's or Baller's shoulders.  The work was graphically assertive yet also balanced and the composition was pleasant to most.

"A lot of murals go up without any kind of permits or anything," Blanding tells me.  That's obvious.  And she thinks part of the reason it's been a success with the neighborhood is that it's not a graffiti style mural.  "Even though it's hippy-dippy, this neighborhood is also kind of conservative."

And so who polices the design police? Is there a risk of strong neighborhood organizations only approving certain kinds of murals that fit their own ideology?

"Well, there is that risk," Reyes told me when I asked him.  "But at the same time, how we define compatibility is going to be critical.  I remember there were a set of [unpermitted] murals that came up with the Virgin Mary smoking a joint.  Our notion was that kids should be able to enjoy that on the embankment.  You wonder if that would have been allowed in other parts of the city.  There's gotta be a sense of balance."

Some of the present-day work is presently City endorsed and City controlled, passes design review, and causes problems anyway.  For instance, Silver Lake Neighborhood Council has been signing off on artists work on utility boxes along various commercial strips.  Utilities complain that once the boxes are painted, their vents are often plugged by paint, leading to electronic failures that cost ratepayers money.

"No, No I think it’s more of a sense of, not control, but how one defines it all in terms of what is desirable and what isn’t.  It’s a desirability factor," Reyes said, hoping that communities can determine through debate what is desirable and what isn't.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)  

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 52

Pub: June 28, 2013

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