When graffiti artists recently protested Los Angeles' ban on street art by tagging their names in the sky where millions of Angelenos could see them, Judy Baca, executive director of the nonprofit Social and Public Art Resource Center, commented, “The graffiti made a wonderful statement: They can't write on walls. The only place to express themselves is the sky.”

Revok, a formerly L.A.-based graffiti artist who lent his name to the protest, said, “You want to threaten to sue me and my friends for painting a mural? OK. That's fine. We'll write our names 10 stories high in the sky.”

Revok gave up on Los Angeles and moved to Detroit this summer after spending more than a month in jail over graffiti charges. “L.A. City Attorney [Carmen Trutanich] told me, told my lawyer, that if I ever paint another mural in Los Angeles — even if [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] commissions me to do the side of their building — they have a civil lawsuit ready to go, for upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says.

Trutanich could not be reached for comment.

What has come to be known as the “L.A. mural moratorium” began with a late-1990s lawsuit against the city by Regency Outdoor Advertising, which owns many of the billboards on the Sunset Strip. Regency said the city's sign code allowed restrictions on street advertising — while the Cultural Affairs Commission handed out street art permits like candy — thus violating the First Amendment.

A federal judge sided with Regency. Several state courts came to similar conclusions: It's a violation of free speech to have a sign code that sets out lax rules for fine art murals, even on private property, while banning or restricting billboards and outdoor advertising.

Molly “Goo” Scargall, who asked Revok and his graffiti-artist friends to paint a mural on her popular hair salon in the Fairfax District, calls that argument “bullshit.”

“One is beautifying; one is enhancing the community,” Scargall says. “The other is for advertising or for commercial gain.”

But the courts say outdoor advertising is protected “commercial speech.”

Tanner Blackman, who leads the Department of City Planning's sign team, hopes to address the bitter controversy by largely copying the city of Portland, Ore. He was set to present his plan to a joint meeting of the city's Planning and Land Use Management and Arts, Parks and Neighborhoods committees on Oct. 12, as L.A. Weekly went to press.

How did Los Angeles, once known as the mural capital of the world for its vibrant outdoor wall art — much of it created under former mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan — become a city where fine art murals are illegal?

After the Regency lawsuit, new billboards began cluttering L.A., some even disguised as art. Los Angeles is believed to have as many as 10,000 billboards, many of them highly lucrative and erected without earthquake inspections. In a shortsighted effort by the City Council in 2002, the 15 politicians invented highly controversial “sign districts,” or specified plots of land where advertisers and artists both could post new signs and ignore the city ban on billboards.

But few street punks had any interest in seeing their work relegated to cluttered corporate gardens such as Hollywood Boulevard. Blackman says the Cultural Affairs Commission kept approving murals on private land, somewhat undercover — until the lid again blew off the messy sign code.

In 2008, a federal judge declared chunks of the code still unconstitutional. So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's political appointees on the Los Angeles Planning Commission tried to create an ordinance that would shield City Hall from the threats of monied outdoor advertisers.

But as the Weekly wrote in its “Billboards Gone Wild” cover story in 2008, every single elected official at City Hall had taken campaign money from Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor or other biggies in the billboard industry. The rules remained a mess, and then newly elected City Attorney Carmen Trutanich stepped in — declaring war on illegal billboards and illegal supergraphics and, in no lesser part, a war on the graffiti-art culture that many Angelenos treasure.

Baca says City Hall's freeze on outdoor murals has stunted the art form's growth, allowing places like Philadelphia to overtake L.A. in number — and quality — of art murals. Worsening the situation, gangsters and taggers — not generally street artists — are targeting L.A.'s classic older pieces, badly vandalizing the murals to promote themselves and threaten their enemies. About 128 million square feet of graffiti have been removed citywide in the past four years.

“We're in a very, very dark period here,” Baca says.

Today, fine art murals can be approved only on buildings or structures owned by the city, state or federal government. All pre-2002 murals can remain because they were grandfathered in.

Pat Gomez, the city Department of Cultural Affairs' murals manager, said in an email to the Weekly that with most murals, “The individual property owners/mural creators are responsible for the maintenance of these works.”

But property owners who wish to preserve or allow new mural art — and are unaware of, or ignore, City Hall's ban — face punishment. A controversial $336 fine was issued to North Hollywood resident Barbara Black in a dustup that had arts advocates such as NoHoArtsBlog.com ridiculing the city's tangled priorities.

Black hired North Hollywood High School students to paint a “graffiti-style” installation on her unattractive alley fence. When L.A. Department of Building and Safety officials got wind of the piece, to Black's surprise, they deemed the mural illegal advertising because it contained a single word: “Like.”

But if Black removed “Like” to avoid the fine, she still faced punishment for allowing a fine art mural.

To clear up such messes, Tanner Blackman wants to more or less copy Portland's “original art murals” permit system: L.A. would restrict the size of murals, and the pieces would have to remain unchanged for five years, to prevent ads from creeping in. Ordinance drafters are considering implementing a neighborhood-approval system to decide which murals pass muster.

Blackman insists city officials and elected politicians wouldn't be able to engage in unconstitutional artistic discretion because, at last, the rules would be clearly defined.

“It lets art happen and lets people paint on their walls — as you would assume they could in a free society,” Blackman says.

The ordinance comes after years of policy fumbling by mayors James Hahn and Villaraigosa. But it's hard to say if the new rules would rein in City Attorney Trutanich, seen by many artists as the figurehead of the city's war on street art. Even as the city attorney has sought to prevent the billboard industry's multimillionaire CEOs from slipping through loopholes in the L.A. sign code, he's willingly devastated the street art scene.

After Revok was thrown in jail, Risk — a friend and fellow L.A. artist — told the Weekly that Trutanich and L.A. County Sheriff's deputies “spent an exorbitant amount of time to go after Revok. They're beating a dead horse. He quit doing illegal graffiti and he's trying to move on, and they won't let him.”

East Hollywood artist and former tagger Smear also was targeted this year when Trutanich sought an unprecedented court injunction to prevent Smear from legally selling any work that resembled his past illegal tagging. Smear was arrested after Sheriff's deputies found painting supplies in his apartment.

“It raises extreme First Amendment issues,” one ACLU attorney said at the time. “The government shouldn't be in a position of saying you can't make art from certain materials.”

Reach the writer at swilson@laweekly.com.

LA Weekly