After a Protracted Battle, Los Angeles Takes Final Steps to Lifting Ban on Murals

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Los Angeles’ decade long ban on murals is coming to a close. This past Wednesday, August 28, 2013, the Los Angeles City Council voted—in a 13-2 decision—to pass a new ordinance that would remove the city’s prohibition on large outdoor artworks.

The ordinance creates several important innovations. It establishes a system whereby artists will pay a $60 registration fee to paint in business and industrial zones on nonresidential buildings. The works cannot contain a commercial message and must remain up for at least two years. Older, preexisting murals, referred to as “Vintage Art Murals,” will be grandfathered under the protection of this policy. Significantly, the ordinance also defines murals as “non-commercial works of art,” creating a category of works distinct from signs and advertisements where one did not exist before.

Wednesday’s meeting marks the closing of a two-year effort that began in October of 2011, when a joint committee of the Planning and Land Use Management and Arts, Parks & Neighborhoods committees of the City Council met to discuss the possibilities of ending the mural ban. According to James Brasuell of LA.curbed.com, three approaches had originally been considered, including i) establishing a special mural district in L.A., ii) creating a permit system controlled by the city, and iii) instituting an “art easement system,” whereby private building owners would give the city an easement (limited use of private property) on its walls.

The lift of the mural moratorium has excited many in local government and art world alike. Councilman Jose Huizar, who chairs that Planning and Land Use Management Committee, stated that he believes the final ordinance will help restore L.A.’s reputation as “the mural capital of the world.” Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, stated that, “the mural community stands united . . . [to] put an end to the dark ages of muralism in Los Angeles.” She also said that “we owe it to our next generation to reclaim our legacy as a mural capital of the world.” Many celebrated artists also attended the city meeting and advocated for the interests of muralists, including Kent Twitchell, Willie Herrón III, Fine Art Squad’s Victor Henderson, and David Botello and Wayne Healy of East Los Streetscapers. In fact, new murals have been popping up all over Los Angeles in anticipation of the end of the ban, including a new work by artist Allison “Hueman” Torneros, who painted a colorful mural on a wall at East Third and Main. Daniel Lahoda, founder and curator of L.A. Freewalls, explained that this was a symbolic act of support for the new ordinance, as the wall had been  “whitewashed either by the city, by local BIDs, or by mysterious crews.”

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New Work By Allison “Hueman” Torneros

The ordinance does not represent a full and immediate victory for mural supporters. Last month, two versions of the ordinance had been presented—one that would allow murals on single-family homes (Option A) and one that would prohibit them (Option B). Option B was approved on Wednesday, by which only residential areas that “opt in” to the mural program by petitioning the city are permitted to have the artworks on walls and homes. Additionally, Wednesday’s meeting was only the first public reading of the ordinance, which will be followed by a second reading this week. At the second reading, the ordinance will again be put to a vote and will require ten to move forward. California arts journalist Ed Fuentes says that the committee will review additional amendments, and review and write additional reports. Thankfully? As? the process is in motion and hopefully the new ordinance will create the legal framework to help L.A. revitalize its historic mural scene.

The battle for L.A.’s walls has been raging for years and represents a conflict between parties with widely divergent interests. Starting with the work of the Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad in the late 1960s-1970s, L.A. became a breeding ground for many important muralists and artists experimenting on the walls all over the city. In recent years, disputes have arisen as the city attempted to protect neighborhoods from unwanted intrusions of large, sometimes controversial artworks and also controlled a proliferation of (poster? Visual?) advertising. The L.A. Times stated: It was the latter objective that led to the ban a decade ago. Advertisers sued the city on 1st Amendment grounds because muralists could create big, eye-catching displays that were banned for commercial enterprises. Of the city’s motivations for imposing the mural ban, famed muralist Kent Twitchell said in an interview with Southern California Public Radio: “I think the reason… that restrictions happened was not to eliminate murals—the city council has always been very supportive of public art. It was to try to cut down on all these huge signs that began going up on the sides of buildings.” However, whatever the city’s motivations, the result of the decade-long ban has been the stifling of the vibrant public art tradition that made L.A. the hub for muralists around the world. And inconsistent application of the ban has led to the realization that a change had to be made.

Although muralists may legally return to L.A. walls, the passing of Option B (which bans artists from painting on single-family homes) appears to be an attempt to represent interests of local residents as well as artists. “It’s difficult to strike a balance,” said Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, Westchester and Pacific Palisades. “We’re a city of murals, but we’re first and foremost a city of neighborhoods.” Councilmen Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield voted against the final measure, saying that the neighborhoods that did not want murals would not have enough of a voice in saying where they go.

Artists are also concerned with how the rules will affect (or hamper) the creative processes of the muralists working on L.A. walls. Though broadly pleased with the result, Twitchell commented:

Willie Herrón, the great legendary muralist from the east side, tried to tell everybody who would listen to him that the same thing is gonna happen that happened before: an unwitting banning of a certain kind of art. The neighborhoods that don’t want murals, because they have this idea of what a mural is—an homogenization of a beautiful painting covered with tagging. They don’t want that in their neighborhood and so they simplistically say ‘no murals in our neighborhood.

What remains to be seen is the exact form that the new ordinance will take, as well as the effects the new ordinance will have on the newly created public artworks.

Check out the New York Times’ tribute to murals and public art in New York City published last week: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/30/arts/design/graffiti-art-of-the-city-from-the-bronx-to-brooklyn.html

Sources: LA Times, Art Info

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