Photos: Rethinking LA’s mural ban

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Updated Thursday August 29: 

The City Council voted Wednesday to lift the city-wide ban on murals.  From the LA Times:

The new rules, which must come back for an expected final approval next week, will permit new murals in business and industrial zones as long as artists register projects with the city and pay a $60 application fee. Commercial messages are prohibited and works must remain for at least two years as part of the city effort to control advertising.

Murals have long been an iconic part of Los Angeles. Drive the streets or walk the sidewalks of many neighborhoods, and you’ll see an abundance of public murals on buildings and walls. The works range from the provocative to the poetic to the absurd.  In fact, there are so many murals in the city, Los Angeles has been dubbed the Mural Capital of the World.

But here’s the irony about mural art in the city: since 2002 L.A.’s had regulations on the books largely banning the painting of outdoor works of art on private properties. Why? The mural ban was added to existing ordinances, which attempted to restrict unregulated signage and advertising in Los Angeles.

Many of the murals that been painted on L.A. buildings in the decade since have been illegal. And that, according to many arts advocates,  turns mural artists into outlaws and hurts the wider cause of creating powerful works of public art in L.A. that engage both the eye and mind.  “It has created a climate that is an anti-mural climate in the City of Los Angeles,” says Judy Baca, prominent L.A. muralist and founder of the community arts group Social & Public Art Resource Center.

Supporters of allowing murals on houses say it’s an issue of freedom of expression and allowing property owners the right to do what they want with their own homes. But one person’s artistic vision could be another person’s eccentric eyesore. Some neighborhood associations have expressed concerns that allowing murals on homes could increase visual blight in L.A. and depress property values.

The dispute over murals on homes aside, even a partial rollback of L.A.’s mural ban means more new works of art won’t just be displayed in L.A’s  museums and galleries, they will also be found on the streets.

L.A. has a long of mural making, with some of it roots in the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. Many of the works wrestle with issues of ethnic and community identity and the push and pull of assimilation. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Many L.A. murals become neighborhood touchstones, such as Echo Park’s “Quinceañera” by artist Theresa Powers. Here the mural receives some recent touching-up by artist Kiki Giet. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Despite the mural ban, some new murals have been put up in some areas of the city, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods of downtown L.A. Enforcement often depends on how many local residents and property owners complain.
(Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
One of L.A.’s most striking murals is artist Kent Twitchell’s “Bride and Groom.” It was completed in 1976 at 242 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Twitchell and other mural artists have complained that L.A.’s mural ban has encouraged property owners to paint over historically significant murals in the city. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Murals aren’t just about high-minded notions of self-expression and identity. Many L.A. businesses, like this tortilla store in Glassell Park, use murals to attract attention and customers. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
A rollback of L.A.’s mural ban raises some concerns, especially a proposal to allow murals on single-family homes. What might be provocative or playful art to the homeowner could be garish visual pollution to the neighbors. If L.A. does allow murals on homes, it’s likely that particular communities that don’t want residential mural-making can get restrictions passed. Expect it to raw fuel for many neighborhood council meetings.
(Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
In conversations about murals, the issue of its artistic step-cousin graffiti often comes up. As Los Angeles rethnks its mural regs, one issue is where does mural art end and tagging begin? (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
Prior to 1986, there were no rules on the books governing the placement of murals in the City of Los Angeles. The current ban on murals is closely connected to L.A.’s efforts to control advertising and signage. L.A. has been sued by the outdoor ad industry, which has argued that allowing murals but not advertising is an infringement on freedom of speech. (Photo by Saul Gonzalez)
If L.A. does eliminate its mural ban, the issue of commercial speech will likely become an issue. How do you regulate murals that are both art and a sales pitch?
(Photo by Saul Gonzalez)