Loading...

Signs of Change 

'Supergraphics' transform the cityscape

Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
Comments
Photo by Kathleen ClarkMuralist and maverick Mike McNeilly has won fame and fortune pioneering the use of “tall walls,” the broad expanses on the sides of high-rise buildings, for both commercial and public-service art. His latest endeavor, however, on the west side of the Westwood Medical Center will land him in court.

What’s left of his vision looms over the National Cemetery in Westwood: the Statue of Liberty, arm upraised, but from the chest down, the colors fade to flat off-white, the robes and pedestal unfinished. McNeilly was interrupted midwork by the arrival of police. "I had the perfect idea for a mural of the Statue of Liberty directly across from the National Cemetery to be completed around Memorial Day," McNeilly fumed during a recent interview. "But Mike Feuer called the Building and Safety Office on me, and they in turn called the cops." A short time later, McNeilly received a subpoena in the mail.

His project, it turned out, had landed him in the crossfire of a growing debate over the proliferation of outsize art across the city. To some, like Councilman Feuer, the tall-wall signs, especially the latest generation of "supergraphics" — computer-generated images printed on sheets of vinyl mesh and hung on the sides of high-rise buildings — are a nuisance, an assault on already-saturated urban sensibilities. To commercial entrepreneurs, it’s a matter of dollars — tall walls are an unparalleled vehicle for reaching a mass audience with a simple, pointed message. To McNeilly, it’s a question of freedom.

"This is a First Amendment case clear and simple," McNeilly said, his outrage tempered by a sense of mischief. "There are a handful of L.A. bureaucrats making decisions as to what thousands of building owners can do with their property."

Related Stories

  • Chinatown Crackdown

    City Attorney Mike Feuer announced Friday a crackdown on the sale of fireworks across the city. Since June 20, his office, in conjunction with the Fire Department, Port Police, and Department of Street Services, has filed four criminal cases against shop owners in Chinatown and the Toy District, confiscating 1,000...
  • L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer Takes on Marijuana With Compassion

    Former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who once held the opinion that no dispensary in Los Angeles was truly legal, was reviled by the local medical marijuana community. His predecessor, Democrat Mike Feuer, took Trutanich's job, in at least some small part, because voters were fed up with the onetime Republican's anti-dispensary...
  • Pot Shops Thrive 2

    Last year Los Angeles voters essentially outlawed all marijuana dispensaries in town. Prop. D, which passed 62 percent in favor to 37 percent opposed, grants limited immunity to the 135 or fewer legit weed stores still standing following a 2007 City Council moratorium on pot sellers. See also: 1,000 Medical Marijuana...
  • Pot-Shop Showdown

    The journey toward having a city with 135 or less marijuana dispensaries has been a slow one. In May voters approved Measure D, which mandated all but those 135 shops that were operating legally during a city moratorium in 2007 must close. But here we are approaching spring and the pot...
  • Disabled People Forced to Live in West Adams Horror House, City Says

    About 80 physically and mentally disabled residents crammed inside two "assisted living" homes in the historic West Adams district were punished if they missed their bi-daily religious services, according to a civil complaint filed by City Attorney Mike Feuer. Punishments included having to stand by a tree for hours, transcribing...

In that, McNeilly is half right. City building officials make efforts to enforce current statutes regarding outdoor signs, and on occasion that means taking action against advertisers and building owners. But the signs are spreading faster than inspectors can track — on Sunset Boulevard, down La Brea Avenue, on the Miracle Mile, in South L.A. and into downtown. "There’s no way we can keep on top of all the supergraphics," said Jim Kaprielian, assistant chief of the Building and Safety inspection division.

McNeilly became a special case when Feuer personally pressed building and safety to move against him. McNeilly was served with an order to cease, and when he refused, he was charged with failing to respond to a city order.

There is no consensus that the city should keep on top of the supergraphics and other mega-signs. Razzle-dazzle graphics have helped make the Sunset Strip a landmark of sorts, and many Angelenos look forward to seeing smart images brighten ing bare walls in every corner of the city. To Deborah Sussman, co-founder of Sussman Prejza environmental graphic design, supergraphics should fall under the category of public art, not public nuisance. They’re a trend that’s catching on across the globe, she said, "New York, Paris, Tokyo"; and Los Angeles is the natural capital of the movement. "L.A. is an automobile city," Sussman noted. "People need landmarks, a place that everyone can recognize. Supergraphics do just that."

And Sussman’s opinions could count for a lot, especially in Hollywood. Her company, which operates under the motto "Out of the museum and into the streets," is in the running for a contract to write rules governing public signs in the Hollywood Entertainment District, covering much of the fabled Boulevard.

Even in Hollywood, however, the sprouting of giant signs on the sides of prominent buildings is generating vigorous opposition. "The city should set up a visual-pollution tax for these things," declared activist Gerald Schneiderman. "Tax them out of existence, that’s the answer."

Schneiderman is himself a developer who also serves as de facto critic-in-residence for the Community Redevelopment Agency and the MTA, two of the biggest players in the current Hollywood renaissance. He has a more direct interest in supergraphics than most: One window of his own office is currently shaded by a supergraphic ad for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The sign is see-through, like those now covering some city buses, but the mesh filters out about half the exterior light. Schneiderman grouses that his office is more dingy than before, but acknowledges that he enjoys the cooler atmosphere that results.

Other critics focus on the invasion of public space, and the masking of conventional architecture, that the supergraphics represent. Robert Nudelman, president of the preservationist group Hollywood Heritage, considers the current surge of billboards and supergraphics throughout the district as, simply, "blight."

"Just look at the Metro subway stations due to open along Hollywood Boulevard," Nudelman says. "The first thing passengers will see when exiting the terminal are the new billboards built across the street."

Still, when it comes to spectacular sign age, some see beauty where others see visual pollution — even some of the architects who design the buildings the signs tend to obscure. "I don’t have a problem with supergraphics that cover empty wall space," said Neil Denari, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. "Every medium, from buses to buildings, could be thought of as a potential vehicle for advertising," he said. In fact, Denari is looking forward to more eye-catching signs, and to buildings built to display them. "The Ginza district in Tokyo is a good example," he said. "We could install permanent glass façades on a building’s exterior to have various ads projected onto them, with moving images and everything."

Related Content

Now Trending

Los Angeles Concert Tickets

Slideshows

  • 21st Annual Classic Cars "Cruise Night" in Glendale
    On Saturday, spectators of all ages were out in multitudes on a beautiful summer night in Glendale to celebrate the 21st annual Cruise Night. Brand Boulevard, one of the main streets through downtown Glendale, was closed to traffic and lined with over 250 classic, pre-1979 cars. There was plenty of food to be had and many of the businesses on Brand stayed open late for the festivities The evening ended with fireworks and a 50th anniversary concert from The Kingsmen, who performed their ultimate party hit, "Louie, Louie." All photos by Jared Cowan.
  • The World Cup Celebrated And Mourned By Angelenos
    The World Cup has taken Los Angeles by storm. With viewings beginning at 9 a.m., soccer fans have congregated at some of the best bars in the city including The Village Idiot, Goal, The Parlour on Melrose, Big Wang's and more. Whether they're cheering for their native country, favorite players or mourning the USA's loss, Angelenos have paid close attention to the Cup, showing that soccer is becoming more than a fad. All photos by Daniel Kohn.
  • La Brea Tar Pits "Pit 91" Re-Opening
    Starting June 28th, The Page Museum once again proudly unveils the museum's Observation Pit, which originally opened in 1952 but has spent most of the last half century closed. Now visitors can get an up-close look at Pit 91, which is currently under excavation. The La Brea Tar Pits, home of the Page Museum, is one of the world's most famous ice age fossil locations, known for range of fossils from saber-toothed cats and mammoths to microscopic plants, seeds and insects. The new "Excavator Tour" is free with museum admission if purchased online at tarpits.org . All photos by Nanette Gonzales.