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Mural Ordinance Passes. Now What?

Good folklore is cultural storytelling, and the mural ordinance's complicated weave toward a final signature has a backstory worthy of its own mural.

And this folklore comes from a real nostalgia, a personal experience, that became a political sentiment for those who remember the retro murals that dot the city. This helped the ordinance pass another hurdle in city council this week.

With a 13 to 2 vote, coming with no fanfare or public comment during a special session on Wednesday -- a quick whisper from council tally with no impassioned pleas -- the modified Option B, which doesn't allow murals on single-family homes, has officially moved forward.

It needs to be signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti within 11 days. The mural ordinance will be official 30 days after it's signed. No delays or hiccups are expected.

Leading the victory dance is Tanner Blackman, who led the mural ordinance through drafts and community meetings as City Planner, before shifting to the role of planning director for District 14 Councilmember José Huizar. Last night, Blackman was tweeting out #ArtIsOfficiallyNotACrime.

Discussions on the mural ordinance began in August 2011, and since then lobbied by different styles of artists, while being drafted to protect it from the commercial influences that led to its decade long banishment.


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"We as a City decided to embrace our history and re-affirm our commitment to supporting the arts, community building and beautifying our neighborhoods through murals. Now we can begin to re-affirm our claim as the 'Mural Capital of the World," said Councilmember Huizar, after last week's yes vote of the ordinances' first reading. Huizar chairs the Planning & Land Use Committee and, along with former councilmember Ed Reyes, has been one of the ordinance's biggest advocates.

With this passing through council, and expected final signoff from the mayor, the real work begins. That's not referring to the splinters of Option A, packed in motions that will allow art on single-family homes, which is currently being cycled through City Hall's joint committees.

Yes, some artists are ready to lobby for that option, despite only 2 to 3 percent of the city's mural portfolio having been painted on such structures. To them, part of the working mission is to make sure there are no limits on artistic expression.

There is an ironic loophole brewing. District 14 and 1 are waiting to be approved as the subject of a pilot program that allows works on single-family homes -- a compromise by the council who has had to respond to the diversity of comments from different neighborhoods. Some neighborhood councils urged councilmembers to be careful not to open a window for graffiti or street art, often made with no distinction from historical murals. Muralist and MCLA restoration expert, Willie Herrón III, on the other hand, warned that those property owners who want to paint ornamental decoration on the exterior of their homes may find that their taste is being banned.

Some artists still don't like the idea of a waiting period and permits. Yet, the expression of murals that speak to the site-specific nature of reflecting neighborhood is, by tradition, community-based. With the ways visual culture is high-jacked by taggers or advertising media, not being responsive to community concern is a contradiction. And the requirement that the art needs to stay up for a two-year period is a conflict with another style of mural -- the graffiti or wheat-paste that are about being ephemeral. Those are some of the stories that will be ongoing.

The real work is how to make murals great again. Like many other Angelenos, Huizar was raised where murals were neighborhood storytellers, a mural tradition that gave the city its title of "Mural Capital of the World." East Los Streetscapers' "Chicano Time Trip, from 1977, is a timeline of Chicano history forgotten during the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial. "La Ofrenda" by Yreina Cervantes is the 1989 homage to Delores Huerta with a poem by Gloria Alvarez, written in spray paint by young writers recruited from the former Belmont Tunnel. The 1986 "Fairfax Community Mural Art," by Art Mortimer, brought local Jewish stories to the public. There's the short flash fiction in "Dolores del Rio," the 1989 mural by Alfredo De Batuc, or the long form novel of "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" by Judy Baca and SPARC. And the fortitude needed for major works to be restored, as seen by the work of SPARC and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, is part of the Los Angeles mural folklore. And as we saw with David Alfaro Siqueiros "America Tropical," the backstory is sometimes as compelling as the work itself.

The current wave of street art piggybacked on the initial motions to revive murals that are filled with historical narrative that gives the city its legacy. While some fall short of carrying stories about the neighborhood, and are really about the artist, their backstory is how they exist in defiance of a ban. They also serve as visual reference in media reports about the city's street culture.

The mural ordinance moving murals out from the sign code is one thing. But for the city to regain the title of a "mural capital," it has to be remembered that the reputation came from quality works of murals with historical content, or that mastered scale on space -- or both.

The hard work will always be securing funding, and keeping taggers and advertising at bay, which may make some mural stakeholders look back with an ironic nostalgia at the days when sitting in a crowded room talking, debating, and cursing about the state of murals was the center of Los Angeles art activism.

For now, the folklore on any mural renaissance that brings back storytelling to the streets will also include the ordinance that was, in no small part, authored by artists.

Addendum: At end of the day, Sept. 5, 2013, the city clerk recorded the final vote as 12-3. The 3 no votes were Councilmembers Blumenfield (District 3), Koretz (District 5), and Parks (District 8). The ordinance was filed to the Mayor's office. "Last day for Mayor to act is September 16, 2013."

"Hope of Broadway" I Photo illustration by Ed Fuentes I Base photo of Pope of Broadway by Martin Schall I With apologies to Eloy Torres, the muralist for "Pope of Broadway" (1985)

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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