Before Paint Comes Paperwork: Murals As Seen By Code Breakers

JR Wheatpaste mashup illustration with Tanner Blackman, who is overseeing sign codes to resolve the mortarium on murals on private property in Los Angeles | Photo Illustration by Ed Fuentes

This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The series comments on cultural history and urban issues through the lens of community profiles, such as Venice and the Arts District.

Let it be said in the lore of murals in Los Angeles, a former Camelot for large-scale outdoor art, the rabble-rousing villagers seeking walls to use as canvas have been heard. Yet, to begin the end of a siege of penalties and neglect, a wizard is needed. One with an understanding of the laws of the land, who knows the legacy of murals, and be aware of street art developing aesthetic theories.

City of L.A., bring out your code slayer!

In February, 2011, the city's Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) prioritized the task to review current regulations where murals reside, including breaking down how they ended up in their current state, and guide information that lead decisions to form enforceable ordinances that allows art to be created.

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Appointed (or burdened) to gather that intelligence is Tanner Blackman, 33, who energetically works in an unappealing sounding department: the Department of City Planning Code Studies Section. He leads the mural component of "The Sign Team," a staff so-dubbed when first assembled to unravel billboard issues.

Blackman began his post in 2007, just in time for a set of 2008 motions responding to protests of murals being lost or unable to be produced. He is hopeful new directives will give muralists, curators, street artists, city council members, cultural policymakers, and the community-at-large a starting point in upcoming discussions to revive murals in the city.


Even the LAPD and L.A. County Sheriff's Department have called him requesting a seat at the table of stakeholders.

The city's modern urban mural renaissance began at the cusp of the 1970s and had so much influence on the Los Angeles landscape, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee included murals for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

"The city realized there was no policy set in place," says Blackman. "The simple solution at the time was to fold it into the books, under sign ordinances."

The sign code has not been revised since 1986.

At first, painted murals flourished, and often funded on private property throughout the city. In the Department of Cultural Affairs database alone, it is cited that 400 City-sponsored murals were produced between 1971 and 1999.

Many of you know the story from here. Companies, seeking to put up billboards and supergraphics, challenged city's mural exemptions by claiming First Amendment protection, and in the Los Angeles, murals became prohibited. Protecting free speech for one group silenced another.

Now with a recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling leaving a door open for districts--signs, murals, or otherwise--and the experience found in Portland, there is a chance for a mural revival.

Currently on the dockets of the Planning Land Use Management (PLUM) committee are the 2008 motions that respond to ordinances from 2002. Like the current motion, they call for a permit process allowing installation of fine arts murals on private property, and would begin lifting current moratoriums.

Blackman points out that the previous council files from 2008, totaling up to four, have been combined as one and are still under consideration by PLUM.

In those files are recommendations to investigate the city of Portland's policy for small murals, "Original Art Murals," and a Public Art Easement ordinance for larger murals called "Public Art Murals."

He is also investigating how sign district provisions, that caused mural prohibition since 2002, offer a blueprint for developing mural districts. And just as important, Blackman's team will advise policy that can protect the current inventory of historic murals.

Under potential city codes, 1984's 'Pope of Broadway' by Eloy Torrez would be declared a 'vintage mural' | Photo by Ed Fuentes

"There is both the goal of preserving and legalizing existing mural stock through, perhaps, a 'vintage mural permit' for murals lawfully created prior to April 2002," Blackman says.

And while the current motion by Bill Rosendahl for a city-wide ordinance, despite first considering Venice as a pilot program, mural districts has been brought up as early as 2002, says Blackman. "With sign districts provisions now in place, mural districts could provide a pilot program for a city-wide approach--a chance to work out the kinks in a smaller area."

Portland's program has been a template for a while, such rules dictating that murals must be left up for five years, a window that extends beyond most branding campaigns by ad agencies, or surveying a neighborhood's relationship with the artworks.

"Why can't there be a mural districts?" wonders Blackman, knowing how a neighborhood's history is reflected through fine art murals. It can also be applied to street art in supportive neighborhoods like downtown's Arts District, yet be flexible and prevent wheat paste work to creep into neighborhoods that do not have the same aesthetic appreciation.

The sign code and changes in ordinances apply to private property, he stresses. Property owned by the city of Los Angeles, LAUSD, Metro, Caltrans, is out from under the city's sign code jurisdiction, meaning murals are not banned on those sites.

"In drafting a potential ordinance, at this point, the Planning Department intends to keep all options open for research and development," Blackman says.

Districts can also raise the identity of a neighborhood, such as downtown Los Angeles with turn of-the-century painted commercial signs. "Bringing Back Broadway is an invitation to allow roof signs," Blackman reasons. "Under current regulations, there are limits on how they can be installed."

Vintage signs? Like retro designs becoming a larger presence in the historic areas of Los Angeles, leading to a revival of blade signs and neon? Another form of what defines the city visually may be allowed to thrive?

Tell me more, I say!

"Well, let's get back to murals," chuckles Blackman, who has already been exposed to brainstorming sessions and knows staying on track will be important to find a solution.

"I'm looking at clusters," he says before recanting that the framework of current codes could allow mural production to embellish neighborhoods, even if they evolved. Small steps can lead to a monitored citywide program allowing production and maintenance, while still leaving room for street art to find its place. "A district approach may work for Los Angeles. Such ideas still need to be work shopped and public input sought."

If Blackman is able to make the limits and opportunities of the current code be clearer to stakeholders, the state of murals in Los Angeles may very well be dragged out of The Dark Ages.

More murals and street art commentary from Departures:

Web: kcet.org/departures
Twitter: @KCETdepartures
Facebook: KCETdepartures

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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