In 2004, Stash Maleski, of In Creative Unity Art, started a pilot program putting up, restoring, and protecting murals in Boyle Heights. The project worked with dozens of murals around the neighborhood on private property and with the consent of the owners, and Maleski deemed it a rousing success.
Since then, however, 20 of the murals were issued citations and ultimately 10 of them were whitewashed, after anonymous complaints were called in to the city.
“We’ve lost hundreds of murals,” Maleski said. “There is no way to get a new mural permitted if you’re on private property. Most murals in this city went up without a permit. There are thousands of them that are all in jeopardy.”
Los Angeles was once famous for its murals, Maleski said, many of which are still up. But as the City of Los Angeles has struggled to clamp down on digital billboards, supergraphics, and other forms of advertising, public art has been sucked into the resulting legal morass.
The 2002 ban on new billboards sparked lawsuits from billboard companies, which, among other things, demanded that billboards receive the same treatment as public art. As a result, no new murals on private property were given city permits, and in 2007 the city began issuing citations for new murals.
For the last two years, the city has been working to find a way to allow artists to paint and maintain murals, while also maintaining the ban on new billboards. In the meantime, however, any new murals painted on private property remain subject to citation, and older murals that have been victims of vandalism or decay are often whitewashed if the artists cannot fund the restoration themselves.
On Tuesday, at a joint meeting of the Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) and Arts, Parks, Health and Aging committees, City Councilmember Dennis Zine, 3rd District, who chairs the PLUM committee, expressed his hope that the issue would be resolved by the end of the year.
“In truth, we had to wait for some of the legal issues to take their course,” Zine said. “Now, we have to find ways to work within that framework, provide room for spontaneity from the artists, while also remaining consistent with the decisions the courts are making. I know this is wishful thinking, but I hope we can be done with this by the end of the year.”
The city’s efforts to carve out an exemption to the sign ordinance for murals have followed a two-tier approach pioneered by the City of Portland, Oregon. The first approach would involve an art easement, which would allow the city to regulate murals as art, but would also require public funding for the murals. The second, called a “time, place, and manner” approach, would continue to regulate murals under the sign ordinance, with enforcement focused on size and location, instead of content.
A combination of both approaches might be employed both to permit new murals, and to allow existing murals to be legally maintained. However, Deputy City Attorney Ken Fong said that the city council must balance the desire to preserve public art against the danger of opening the floodgates for more unwanted advertising.
“The 2002 ban applied to different types of signs, including mural signs,” Fong said. “We don’t allow mural signs, so for many years we haven’t allowed murals. But people want to have murals. The council wants to have murals as well, but they’re also cognizant of trying to balance the desire for public art against the need to regulate advertising. So the PLUM committee is trying to be very deliberate about this issue, and balance things.”
Still, for the public art community, the delay means not only the continued loss of existing murals, but also the loss of the city’s most talented muralists, who have to go to other cities to work.
Wayne Alaniz Healy, co-founder of East Los Streetscapers, has been painting murals in Los Angeles for almost 40 years.
“In those days, we were pretty much free to do what we wanted to,” Healy said. “I realize there are limitations to that, but I never dreamed we’d get to the point where we couldn’t tell the difference between a mural and a billboard. I’m a fan of vintage murals, but we need to generate new stuff. There’s a new generation of artists that need to express themselves, and right now they can’t.”
City Councilmember Paul Krekorian, 2nd District, suggested a moratorium on enforcement of the sign ordinance against billboards so that artists could continue to work while the council worked to draft a new ordinance.
Fong, however, warned of potential legal problems if the council instructed Department of Building and Safety to enforce the ordinance against some signs and not others. He reiterated that a citation for a mural is not the same as an order to whitewash the mural.
Moleski maintained that in most cases, a citation would lead to whitewashing.
“If you receive a citation, there aren’t any avenues for recourse,” Moleski said. “The only thing is to request a variance. Just the request costs a thousands dollars, and they’ve never actually granted one. Once they’re cited, the building owners are so scared of the threat of jail time, they usually paint it over on their own. The citation is a death sentence.”
City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, 4th District, who chairs the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging committee, reiterated the council’s commitment to public art.
“As chair of the arts committee, I want to make it as spontaneous but responsible as possible for people to create public art in Los Angeles,” LaBonge said.
With no new ordinance expected until at least the end of the year, though, for the time being muralists will have to continue to ply their trade elsewhere.
“We’re a mural production company, and we can’t even work in this town,” Moleski said. “If we didn’t work outside L.A. we’d have no work.”
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