Instead of cracking down on illegal commercial signage, the Department of Building and Safety is going after…murals?

“When I think of how to describe L.A., I think of the Thelonious Monk song,” says former City Councilman Michael Woo. “It’s an Ugly Beauty.”

Woo’s is an apt description of a city that currently faces two opposing aesthetic visions: that of Judith Baca and her fellow muralists who seek to protect public art, and that of corporate advertisers who look to fill L.A.’s skies with signage.

This Saturday, at the Morono Kiang Gallery located in downtown’s Bradbury Building, a panel of artists and politicians met to assess the (sorry) state of Los Angeles murals. The discussion included Baca, muralist and executive director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC); prominent L.A. muralists Yreina Cervantez and Man One; Pat Gomez, Arts Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs; and Woo, a member of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Gallery owners Karon Morono Kiang and Eliot Kiang held the event to raise funds for the restoration of Eloy Torrez’s “Pope of Broadway,” a 70-foot mural painted on a building opposite the gallery that depicts screen legend Anthony Quinn.

(Photos by Anna Feuer)

The event took place just a couple weeks after Tom LaBonge and José Huizar pushed four motions concerning mural art through L.A. City Council on May 27. In an effort to protect murals from what they believe is the number one enemy—the Department of Building and Safety—the motions call for clearer processes for the installation of fine art murals.

Baca spoke of the Department of Building and Safety’s recent crackdown on “illegal” murals—murals painted without the appropriate permit. “What I’m seeing,” she said, “is a kind of selective enforcement around particular types of murals… If it’s a graffiti-based mural, it’s more likely to be complained about.” Or if its content is rather controversial. Man One’s “Meeting of Styles” mural, sponsored by the Friends of the L.A. River and painted along the River’s cement walls, had been properly permitted. However, when L.A. Supervisor Gloria Molina saw the figure of a bare-chested wood nymph, she declared a “state of emergency” and ordered the mural’s removal.

At Saturday’s event, Man One remarked, “It’s just disgraceful that they would even consider removing a mural that they gave a permit to…It actually says a lot about what the city thinks of our art form.”

One incident of mural mistreatment that caught the public’s attention occurred when Building and Safety painted over Kent Twitchell’s “Ed Ruscha Monument”—a mural painted on the wall of the L.A. headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor—without giving the artist the required ninety day notice. Citing a violation of the Visual Artists’ Rights Act, Twitchell successfully sued the U.S. government and was awarded a $1.1 million settlement. “Thank you to Kent and his attorneys!” said Baca. “If the VARACT had not been enforced, every piece of public art in the country would have been at stake.”

Panelists Baca and Woo asserted that, at the same time that Building and Safety has been cracking down on murals, illegal billboards have been allowed to proliferate in parts of the city.

In an effort to reduce the estimated 4,000 illegal billboards that clutter L.A. streets, a 2002 ordinance banned the installation of any new billboards, supergraphics, or mural signs—except in designated “sign districts.” There’s a catch, however: Building and Safety’s sign manual does not distinguish clearly between a “mural sign” and a “fine arts mural.” While a mural sign is defined as any sign “made integral with a wall, the written message of which does not exceed three percent of the total area of the sign,” what qualifies as a fine arts mural is left to city government’s discretion. In sign districts, mural signs are allowed up to 15 percent text. Moreover, there is no requirement that a mural sign’s written message be non-commercial.

As a result, Woo argues, billboard companies “take advantage of that ambiguity to justify getting more signs up.” That is, advertising agencies reduce the written message on supergraphics so that they are classified as mural signs and permitted in a sign district. Baca cites the Australian wine company YellowTail’s supergraphics, depicting mermaids and kangaroos with yellow tails, as offenders.

So why is city government spending time and money on removing fine art murals while advertisers coast through loopholes to erect signs? “The underlying problem here is the economics of the outdoor advertising industry,” Woo stated. Billboards bring their owners more than $14,000 a month each; murals beautify the city, serve as symbols for various communities, provide taggers with a legal and creative outlet—but don’t bring in any revenue.

Baca declared, “This is a critical moment in the city’s history. Will L.A. be filled with public advertising? Or will L.A. be filled with public good?”

Woo, for one, hopes that the city government “will actually have the vision and the guts to say no to billboards and yes to murals.” Until Building and Safety shapes up—or at least until the May 27 motions become laws—L.A. will reveal a bit of its uglier side.

LA Weekly