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Mural Citations are Off the Wall Politics

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Urban Big Foot going up in the Arts District in Oct. 2013 | Photo by Isabel Rojas-Williams

In the time leading up to the approval of the mural ordinance, artists and art administrators wailed that anyone can tell the difference between art and an ad; by moving murals out from the sign code, the city could enforce that idea.

The first set of challenges to the mural ordinance showed two things: that there are still ways to make the difference between art and ad a very thin line, and it proved that property owners are still accountable for how their walls are being used. They can be fined if works on walls are considered illegal signs, or lack proper paperwork as art, even if the mural is pitched to them as a legitimate project with paperwork in order.

The owner of the Arts District property that includes the wall with a new Ron English mural, "Urban Big Foot," sponsored by Juxtapoz Magazine and Converse, and administered by LA Freewalls, was cited by the Department of Building and Safety on March 4.

The mural at 1213 East Sixth Street, administered by LA Freewalls, was used as the backdrop for a concert location, art for the album cover, and highlighted in the music video for Foster the People's single "Coming of Age." It had the owner of the property cited on March 14.

"In both instances the mural application process was not completed in its entirety and the mural applications have expired," said Felicia Filer, Public Art Division Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs. "New murals not registered as 'Original Art Murals' are considered signs, and are regulated by the City's sign code."

The mural at Third and Main, by Risk, another LA Freewalls project, had the product's logo and hashtag slogan within the evolving piece. The version with the logos was up only briefly, timed for the launch of a new brand and to be used as the backdrop for a video shoot about the artist. Soon after our initial post on that mural, an e-mail from the sponsor came to my inbox February 20, promoting the video featuring the artist and the mural, and indicating that they "partnered with Risk" for the launch of a brand that's "sophisticated, edgy, and stylish but still a little gritty."

The property owner of Third and Main, where the now modified Risk mural sits, was not cited. According to Department of Cultural Affairs, because a mural registration package was not sent to DCA, the Department of Building and Safety was not notified by their department. E-mails requesting further clarification were not answered by this post time.

What is clear is that at the other downtown locations, property owners will pay the bill for the mural to be painted out. "The property owners have been cited as they are directly responsible for their property," said Filer. "Daniel Lahoda [of LA Freewalls] has not been cited. It would depend upon the agreement between the property owner and LA Freewalls as to who will have to pay for the paint-out."

Lahoda defended that the three projects had all paperwork in order and that the works, while sponsored by commercial firms, were not designed to be an ad. On Twitter, he called these citations as "misguided," and that his sponsors are "real patrons & LA rejects their philanthropy to the Arts."

But it's the signage that's being fined by Building and Safety, not the art. "DCA supports arts patrons and philanthropists of all types," said Filer. "However, we have the responsibility to ensure the Mural Ordinance is administered correctly, as directed by City Council ... in support of a policy jointly authored by artists and the city."

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