Thu, Aug

Graffiti-Bait: The Case against More Wall Murals

MAILANDER MUSINGS - The City of Los Angeles is considering an ordinance whose goal is to encourage even more civic-sponsored murals around town. But we already have enough civic-sponsored murals, and should begin recycling some walls, rather than encourage still more.

Know at the start that I am not a fan of most civic-sponsored murals. To me, a civic-sponsored mural is typically a surrender of maximum space to minimum talent. It is a necessarily large and necessarily public, which means that it can be just as offensive to cultural sensitivities as any billboard. And the degree to which a civic-sponsored mural must satisfy a civic agency is usually precisely the degree to which the mural is amateurish and banal.

Often, for better or worse, teenagers or even children are invited to share in the painting of civic-sponsored murals. (Which is a great misuse of a child's innate sense of design: asking any child to "color in" a mural, rather than design one, is like asking Robert Frost to type some poems by Dryden rather than to write his own.)

To me, civic-sponsored murals are largely amateurish efforts that subordinate artistic talent rather than encourage it. They are designed by a single man or woman, even though there may be thirty or even more "artists" working on one.

The group participatory nature of murals, in which one takes credit for the work of thirty, subordinates twenty-nine to one. How much more interesting it would be to me to see thirty different works by thirty different artists on thirty canvasses than thirty unsteady hands learning their trade on the same otherwise artisan-constructed wall.

But what I don't like about murals most of all is--they are both graffiti-bait and de facto graffiti academies. Anyone who has driven down the Harbor Freeway in the past twenty-five years gets a chance to see downtown how hopeless it is for even a large organization like Cal-Trans to keep murals graffiti-free.

And as for the twenty-nine subordinates who work on murals--where do you think they're honing their craft when they're not painting officially-sanctioned murals? They occasionally hone their trade on walls that aren't approved for any such thing.

Murals are often narrative, telling a story that is far more easily told in text; this is why they have historically been most popular in places with high illiteracy rates. Los Angeles wasn't one of these until recently.

Murals also in the early part of the last century were a very special part of Mexican culture, at a time of considerable political upheaval. Even in America, for a long stretch of the early 20th century, Mexico's top muralists found work here.

Murals were also popular in Florence and Siena in the Trecento, when most Tuscans could not read or write but still, their civic founders felt, needed to know some specific things about who was in control of Tuscan life.

So, you get the picture. I don't like many civic-sponsored murals. I don't buy most of them as sincere. I see them as oversized expressions of very minor narrative and didactic attempts to say something so banal as "this is good" or "this is bad" or "this is funny." Big, yet mostly banal. I see them as indicators of people needing pictures rather than text to tell their own stories; I see them as indicators of literal or cultural illiteracy and declining education.

Yet comes now an enormous effort in the City--even while the City professes to have no extra available funds for planning--to write an Ordinance whose goal is to encourage more civic-sponsored murals.

Dakota Smith at the Daily News writes:  Los Angeles is considering three different approaches for its mural ordinance, largely based on models used in Portland. The approach would help govern the permitting, regulation and content of murals throughout the city.

First, the city is looking at an Art Easement program. In that scenario, a private building owner would grant an easement on the wall to the city, and the city essentially becomes a "patron" of the wall. The city wouldn't own the wall, but would have input on what type of content went up on it.

Another category under consideration is the Original Art Mural program. In this case, permits handed out by the city would allow "original art murals," defined as a hand-produced work of visual art that is tiled or painted by hand. The permits would "encourage murals citywide, and let art happen citywide," said Blackman. "It's potentially simple and cost neutral to administer."

To qualify for both the Art Easement and Original Art Mural, the mural would have to remain in place for five years. The time frame ensures that owners don't swap out the mural for commercial advertisements.

A third approach would put murals in special districts, modeled after the city's sign districts. One benefit of mural districts is they could promote distinct work in different neighborhoods.

I wish we were considering a fourth approach: discouraging all civic commissioning of murals on private property. We have over a thousand of the things already, most are ugly and amateurish, a significant amount celebrate street-art culture (which I don't find nearly as offensive as most agency-sanctioned murals).

Most building owners have far better understanding of construction than they do of art, which means that any private wall that surrenders to some kind of public control will either be tainted by an owner's bad taste or the owner will be shut out of the process entirely. Both realities only assure a celebration of the shoddy.

To me, there are already enough talented muralists to go around as it is. To me, we already have enough murals, and should begin recycling them--we should keep the space to which we devote murals finite, and designate certain walls as temporary mural sites, on which a mural gets to reside for five years, and then gets painted over by another muralist.

If the City really wants more murals, it should simply put them on City-run and City-owned walls. Leave private property out of the equation entirely. We already have more murals than we can possibly covenant to maintain. We don't need any more--we need to manage what we have, maybe even to reduce the numbers, and if we encourage anything, it should be painting on canvasses, not walls.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com where this column first appeared.) –cw

Tags: wall murals, graffiti, Los Angeles

Vol 9 Issue 82
Pub: Oct 14, 2011