Mural Conflict Has Artists Calling for 'Respect'

'I want peace in Congo' I Photo by Scot Ezzell

When the nonprofit Falling Whistles began installing a wheat paste on an Arts District wall last week, the political piece calling for the end of violence in the Congo also became a demonstration project on street art culture's unwritten rules.

The reactive protest shows one of the problems that may complicate future mural ordinances allowing works to go up.

Fortunately, the leaders of the bringing awareness of the civil unrest in the mineral rich Democratic Republic of the Congo, who put up the work with the permission of the building owner and manager, have direct experience dealing with hostile confrontation

This happened a week after street artist Saber tagged the sky calling for the end of Los Angeles' mural mortarium and bring a stop to "the harassment of artists," which is specific to street artists.

The new work on Garey and E. 2nd is the start of a national campaign calling for peace in Democratic Republic of the Congo, and replaced street artist Revok's collaborative "Only Time Will Tell," a mural by local and international graffiti artists completed in December 2010.

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The Peace in Congo project has been completed, able to maneuver past the initial reactions from protests from street artists with a swift apology by Falling Whistles founder Sean Carraso, who regards not informing the artists as a "screw-up."

The letter of apology was posted on Jet Set Graffiti's website. It "caused a pretty big problem for the local community," read the intro, implying that street protocol is the governing body for certain walls.

However, while street artists sent angry tweets, and some media picked up the protest, that support the refrain that large-scale street art is a main victim of murals being eradicated from Los Angeles public art scene, Falling Whistle interns were threatened by self-appointed guardians of graffiti art.

It exposes a potential problem in the call to end the mural moratorium. Activism by street artists are centered on graffiti style works, and when events don't favor street art protocol, there is outrage.

Graffiti artists have been allowed to paint the walls at Garey, E 2nd, and an adjoining alley, for more than a decade; a compromise made by the building owner who hoped to curb the tagging on the building. The building manager, who is a fan of street art, was willing to oversee the walls since he took over 18 months ago. He requested to be unnamed for this article.

That section of wall where the Falling Whistles wheat paste was installed may be sandblasted soon, he tells KCET. It is the preference of a potential tenant who will take over the spot and prefers a blank front entrance. He encouraged them to reconsider, yet understands their preference. He himself runs a business and the wall that serves as the front entrance of his building stays clear of street art.

Yet, this ongoing and time consuming damage control has him reconsidering watching over what has become known as the Arts District graffiti walls.

"If there is anymore drama, I will sand blast the whole thing," says the manager, whose patience wading through street protocol, while trying to support graffiti art, wore extra thin from what he calls an angry smear campaign.

He maintains he has always been supportive of the street art culture, noting he was the person who caught gallery artists marking up a Shepard Fairey piece across the street, and informed local community members.

"I have even have ran outside, when artists are in cuffs, to tell the cops they had permission," he says.

When artists first learned he was willing to allow the wall to be used with permission, they came with sketches to get a informal approval. "Now that doesn't happen anymore," he says.

As for the community being enraged, that may be limited to street artists. The Arts District is more bemused than outraged.

While some prefer painted art over wheat pastes, Arts District's Jonathan Jerald says the purpose of the wall is evolving art.

"From the Arts District community perspective, I think having a space that is dynamic and subject to change--even if change that isn't always an improvement--is a good thing," says Jerald, who has advocated the artistic side of the neighborhood "Maybe Falling Whistle did not respect the unwritten code of the streets by pasting over a work of art by artists that have been working on that wall for a decade or so."

"The bottom line is to see as many walls (in the Arts District) being used. Its fun to watch," adds Jerald.

With the apology, the street and tweet level anger has been tempered. "We just wished the artists were notified," says Daniel Lahoda, who curated French artist JR's work on Arts District walls.

It is ironic that it was Lohoda, as a curator, who inspired Falling Whistle founder Sean Carasso. Also, the Arts District's history of political art makes the new piece by a neighborhood-based nonprofit represent the community more than the graffiti art it covered.

"I walked around and saw all the work going up and it inspired me as a way to get out a message," says Carasso, whose offices were first located on Traction before moving to nearby Alameda.

Carasso's piece is made of large faces, some who are residents of the Arts District, framed alongside people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mural is referred to as a petition, substituting faces for signatures that will later have be faxed to Washington D.C. as part of a national campaign.

The nonprofit will follow up with a website, says Carasso, who states says the content of social message was supported by the building owner (which the manager confirmed).

Graffiti art is also part of that tradition of using art for protest, admits Carasso, who considers strong political art has a strategy and statement.

That power in message, part of Sabar's advocacy, may be credited by some as pushing the city to end the ban on murals. In truth it was already underway.

On Wednesday, Oct., 12th, at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, Councilmembers on a joint-committee will hear updates on the mural ordinance from the Departments of Cultural Affairs and City Planning. The expected outcome is that City Planning will officially be instructed to draft the ordinance, the first step in a legislative process, says Tanner Blackman, who is over seeing the development of ordinances.

While street art is part of that conversation, it is also about allowing varied styles of murals, plus seeking ways so owners of private property will stop being fined when they have works on their building.

It is also making those all those unwritten rules, by all parties, finally get written.

More murals and street art commentary from Departures:

Our blog "Land of Sunshine" is about the shifting culture of our neighborhoods, as well as being a space for ideas. Stay in touch by liking KCET Departures on Facebook, following us on Twitter and subscribing to our RSS.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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