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Mural Ordinance Passes, But Remains in Policy Purgatory

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A segment based on this story was produced for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected." Watch it here now.

Much like the process of artists working toward getting concepts approved, the mural ordinance, which would lift the 11-year city-wide ban on murals, was passed by the Los Angeles city council -- almost.

It came with a "We love murals, but..." theme, mirroring the comments from councilmembers representing districts with little or no mural legacy that once made Los Angeles "the mural capital of the world."

Still, on Wednesday, with majority needed from council, Option B of the mural ordinance was passed with a 13-2 vote.

Since that news mural stakeholders have celebrated a victory, even of it doesn't launch immediate policy change allowing murals to be legal once again.

The mural ordinance, as written in the frame of Option B -- which will require certain conditions to be met for single-family homes to host public art -- will return to council next week for a second reading. With changes from the City Planning Commission version, an unanimous vote was needed, said Tanner Blackman, former city planner and co-author of the draft mural ordinance, who is now District 14's Planning Director.

At the second reading, it will only need 10 votes to really move forward.

Both Option A and B will allow murals to come out from under the sign code that kept them banned from private property. To protect older murals, known as Vintage Art Murals, policy would allow them to be grandfathered in. That also includes any recent works created before the final sign-off of the mural ordinance.

The sticking point with Option A has been how it allows the creation of murals on single-family homes -- as reported, this resulted in last minute lobbying that this new freedom to paint will create a rampage of graffiti-style works, specifically in neighborhoods that are mostly single-family structures.

Kent Twitchell at the city council hearing I Photo by Helen Ly
Kent Twitchell at the city council hearing I Photo by Helen Ly

And there will still be a lengthy timetable before the 11 year-old ban on murals is lifted. It will not be immediate, says Rick Coca, who represents Councilmember José Huizar, who has been pushing for mural policy change.

The amendments that are returning to committees are still to be reviewed, and reports written and read.

What José Huizar is aiming for -- in this purgatory state of Option B -- is to apply elements of Option A. The councilman wants single-family homes, in his District 14 and in District 1, now governed by Gil Cedillo, to be able to host fine art murals.

The opt-in option will allow District 14, which includes Boyle Heights, and District 1, which includes Highland Park and Pico Union, to be a pilot program for neighborhoods that have a history with murals.

"It's become very personal for the councilman," says Coca. "But there's more work to be done."

The report will come from a joint meeting of PLUM and Arts, Parks, Health, Aging & River committees in 30 days. In the interim, Option B will move forward as written, said Coca.

Speaking for districts with no mural legacy were Councilmen Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield, who were the two "no" votes. They stated that their constituents were not necessarily anti-mural, but were leery of a mural ordinance that had no clear process for neighborhood approval.

The mostly pro-mural gallery that waited hours for public comment briefly jeered the Westside and Valley representatives.

Mural Revival Already Begun

As recently noted here, this long drafting of the mural ordinance created a window for a moratorium on a mural moratorium, and allowed a mini-renaissance of new works.

During public comment, Daniel Lahoda told council that the installation of street art under his LA Freewalls project was an example of responsible community engagement based on the proposed policy.

"For 11 years I was the mural manager," said Pat Gomez, formerly of the City's Cultural Affairs department. "I spoke to every corner on the front lines of this issue." Gomez also credited property owners for working with artists to see the mural legacy move forward.

"The mural community stands united before you to ask that you put an end to the dark ages of muralism in Los Angeles," said Mural Conservancy Executive Director Isabel Rojas-Williams, who was joined by Kent Twitchell.

Twitchell was one of several mural masters who turned up for the meeting, which included Willie Herrón III, Fine Art Squad's Victor Henderson, and David Botello and Wayne Healy of East Los Streetscapers.

There may have been many more ready to speak on behalf of murals if it were not for the ordinance hearing changing dates several times. This accounted for opponents to the ordinance not appearing, and leaving their respective council representatives to speak on their behalf.

Willie Herron at the city council hearing I Photo by Helen Ly
Willie Herron at the city council hearing I Photo by Helen Ly

"It's difficult to strike a balance,'' said Councilman Mike Bonin, who has been on the job for two months. He represents mural-rich Venice, and Pacific Palisades. "We're a city of murals, but we're first and foremost a city of neighborhoods."

It emphasized the point that the diversity of the city also means wide range of what people want to see in their neighborhoods, including what type of art, if any, goes on single family homes. Only two to three percent of murals are on such structures.

Single family homes have made an impact during the last-minute rounds of the mural ordinance's approval process. When opposition began, mostly from neighborhood councils, it was the high profile case of rapper Chris Brown putting up a mural of animated monsters on a wall in front of his Hollywood Hills home, then defying neighbors who wanted it taken down. For those opposing the idea of murals that had no neighborhood outreach, it drove the point home for those who opposed Option A.

Brown did take them down, though he said it was his choice and not the complaints or fines. The scary monster scenario was brought up by a council member, and again met with boos.

Yet, what helped prompt the drafting of a mural ordinance was Valley Village resident Barbara Black, who commissioned local students to paint a fence. Then the work was whitewashed after being fined by the city. Both Brown and Black's murals are an example of how art, if restricted from homes, impacts works on walls or fences.

What's important, and worth a celebration, is that the mural ordinance wasn't shot down. Several City Hall insiders confirm that at this stage, the path to painting Los Angeles will be difficult to overturn.

"B" photo illustration by Ed Fuentes. Base photo courtesy LA Freewalls. Additional reporting by Helen Ly

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