Draft Mural Ordinance to be Patted-Down for Loopholes

Saber, Tanner Blackman, and Daniel Lahoba I Photo: Ed Fuentes / viewfromaloft

Unusual rapport was demonstrated back in October when graffiti artist Saber and mural ordinance code breaker Tanner Blackman were both asked to describe outreach between street artist and city.

The artist, just a few weeks after tagging the skies over City Hall with "Art is not a crime," quickly spun around and placed his hands on a wall he painted.

Blackman, a city planner, picked up the cue and patted down the renegade.

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It illustrated how those involved in murals within the city of Los Angeles have been patted down by former ordinances, and how some may look for loopholes in new ones. The sketch comedy moment came on an afternoon that had Saber and Blackman, along with Daniel Lahoda, of JetSet Graffiti, and Isabel Rojas-Williams, of Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, meet in the Arts District to talk mural policy in an informal setting.

The ongoing discussion reached a benchmark moment on December 7th when a draft for a new mural ordinance was released, prompting a 60-day public comment period. The production of murals, considered a sign under the current ordinance, has been hindered by litigation between the city and billboard companies since 2002.

Both a press conference and an evening public meeting were held at Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights, the neighborhood that led a grassroots movement in the early 1970s. Murals produced since then have been threatened in the last decade, and in some cases lost when property owners were patted down by the city. It was in this district that artists became vocal to the complications of creating works, prompting discussions that eventually led last week's fanfare.

Mural ordinance meeting at Self-Help Graphics I Ed Fuentes

"Whenever your dealing with the city, it's important to question everything," said Roberto del Hoyo, co-creator of Mobile Mural Lab, at the public meeting held later that evening. "It's gonna take more than a couple of meetings to have muralists of Los Angeles come up with the language."

"I am very optimistic," said Wayne Healy, a founding member of East Los Streetscapers. "There is a new generation of muralists who have a lot of energy and passion. Looking back at the 1970s, it was a magical time. There was no precedent for it. We painted where the hell we wanted to."

The artists, some with paint still on their hand from working in their studios all day, sat down to pick through the ordinance for flaws while Blackman recited and explained what it meant.

The ordinance is written to protect original works of art by distinguishing it apart from commercial signage. When Blackman pointed out murals were to be removed out from under the definition of signs, and that art works must be unchanged for five years,
Blackman raised his fist in mural solidarity.

He also speculated the draft would be looked at by legal teams to enable commercial content to still be painted on walls in public space.

That is already being tested. On Sunday, Australian street artist Anthony Lister started an all night painting marathon to complete a mural on Melrose touting "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." The artist was brought in by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment to help promote the DVD and Blu-ray release of the 2011 sci-fi film.

Under the old ordinance, the mural of a large ape, and logo from the film would be deemed an illegal sign and an illegal mural. By using a street art aesthetic, it tips off how the new ordinance would be challenged.

Street artists at the meeting also challenged the draft, wondering how the ordinance would not only allow production, but curb "harassment" by law enforcement.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has been watching the ordinance process closely, and may be concerned how it would interfere with their anti-graffiti team, a unit known for not regarding any form of aerosol work as art.

"They invited me on a ride-along," said Blackman to the group of muralists, but did not disclose what the tour would consist of. It's a safe guess that Sheriff's Deputies would show the city planner sites heavy with tagging, both gang and the larger artistic form, in unauthorized locations, in hopes to influence the ordinance.

Blackman noted that the Sheriff's Department lobbied that any permit process require an artist sign a statement declaring they are not currently active in unauthorized graffiti, tagging, or "engaged in vandalism."

He declined the suggestion to the ordinance, but may still take up the offer from the department for the ride. "I'd like to see first hand what their concerns are," he said.

Street artists hopeful to have a full run at walls are not pleased with the idea of art going through an approval process. The ordinance is not designed to give artists complete freedom to just paint anywhere, warned Blackman, reaffirming community input will be needed to secure a permit.

Still, as the meeting was about to start, Healy noted that the draft by Blackman finally felt like the city was siding with artists.

Ed Fuentes has extensively covered mural policy in Los Angeles for KCET's Departures. Read previous mural posts here.

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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