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Signs of Change 

'Supergraphics' transform the cityscape

Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
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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."

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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."

Whether Los Angeles goes the way of the Ginza district lies largely in the hands of Al Nodal, general manager of the city Cultural Affairs Department. Nodal formed a task force last August to tackle the question of supergraphics, which he terms "a new genre," and last February convened a "supergraphics symposium" at the Biltmore Hotel.

Councilman Feuer, a lawmaker with a penchant for regulation, opened the symposium with the flat contention that super-sized graphics be banned. "As new mediums for advertising become readily available," he said, "it is imperative to regulate how advertisers will be allowed to interpret our cultural landscape."

But few others on the task force, comprising representatives from the city, the billboard industry, architects and the public, were inclined to adopt Feuer’s prohibitionist approach. Said Nodal in an interview, "In the end we hope to come up with an ordinance proposal supporting creative signs." By the end of the first meeting it was clear that supergraphics would have a permanent home in L.A.; debate on the new ordinance primarily concerned size and location. One proposal would allow tall signs only in 15 high-density regional centers around the city; another would require that supergraphics exceed 5,000 square feet, though some oppose the minimum as a ploy to corner the market by big companies that have already leased most of the available walls.

Doug Suisman, an urban designer and an adviser to the commission, brought a long-term perspective to the debate. "I am quite concerned with the continuance of imagery instead of substance across Los Angeles," Suisman said. "If this were just a selective application I wouldn’t be as concerned, but I do worry that this might end up being the same type of selective legislation that enabled tawdry mini-malls and cheap architecture to become so prevalent today.

Whatever rules the commission might devise, enforcing them could prove as tough as writing them. Nodal pointed out that there are already laws on the books requiring advertisers to obtain permits, but said they are often ignored. "We have issued permits for a few supergraphics in the past but most of the time advertisers are making deals with high-rise building owners without the city’s consent," Nodal said.

Rick Robinson, an executive with Outdoor Systems Advertising and a member of the task force, agreed, saying his firm is one of the few trying to cooperate with the city. "We don’t have a Wild West mentality," he said. "We could be out there putting them up all over the place, but we are taking the time to attend the meetings and hash out a plan for the future. Other people are just putting them up wherever and staying clear of the task force."

The current regulations, Nodal said, lack teeth. "When and if [building owners] are ever cited, they usually appeal. This gives them an additional 90 days to take them down." In addition, the maximum fine for violating city rules is $1,000 — a small fraction of a supergraphic’s total cost. According to Robinson, bidding for space on a tall wall commonly begins as low as $5,000 per month; rates typically go as high as $30,000.

With those sorts of numbers at stake in such a closely regulated industry, billboard companies have taken an active interest in politics. The top companies have established themselves as among the top campaign contributors in local elections. Records compiled by the City Ethics Commission show that from 1991 to 1997, the four leading billboard companies in Los Angeles donated more than $68,000 to campaigns for local offices.

Mike McNeilly never bothered with lobbying city officials to win their permission. The supergraphics innovator first realized the hidden potential of wall space in the middle 1980s, when he secured leases for much of the square footage fronting the Sunset Strip. He cashed in more than a decade later, he said in an interview, arranging a sale of these leases to Outdoor Systems for a hefty, undisclosed sum.

In the meantime, McNeilly made a name for himself as a public-service philanthropist, launching such solo projects as the gaudy "No Glove, No Love" campaign encouraging the use of condoms. McNeilly and his supergraphics captured the attention of city officials in 1996 when he teamed with the promoters of the film Armageddon to strap a supergraphic on the side of a building facing the 405 freeway. The ad gave the illusion that the high-rise had a huge chunk blown away, and the spectacle prompted a 24-hour traffic jam on the freeway in both directions. Officials demanded that the promotion be taken down the next day.

Now, it’s one of his wildcat artworks, a portrait of the Statue of Liberty, that has landed McNeilly in hot water. Iconoclastic, entrepreneurial, McNeilly has made his fortune and seems well on his way to fulfilling every artist’s dream: the transition from painter to martyr.

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