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New Murals Advertise Products, Despite Passing of Ordinance

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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.

The difference between fine art and advertising is already being stepped on. Only a few months after the passing of an ordinance designed to get murals out under commercial signage, some new works are branding product.

A new mural by Risk, at Third and Main streets, was posted through LALA Arts' instagram, with hashtags #LAFreewalls and #DTLA and #yourfortuneawaits. Now the completed mural has the face adorned with a red "M," matching the teaser campaign for Fortune, a new beer by MillerCoors. Other advertising is promoting a February 2014 launch for the new product. This mural replaced another one painted by Allison Torneros in August 2013, less than a year ago.

It's been noticed by downtowners who followed the mural policy, such as "@jimw:

did anyone clock how long it took for an ad to be done as a mural under the new ordinance? #dtla #mural #ad pic.twitter.com/UCeESHoi2x— jim winstead (@jimw) January 24, 2014

A commercial message within a work violates the new mural ordinance, making the Third and Main art become an illegal billboard, according to the city's sign code. And it's the fragile logistics of what is art, and what is an ad, that forced the city to first ban murals over ten years ago.

"Is the city giving out grants to artists? In large part, no," says Daniel Lahoda of LALA Arts and LA Freewalls. "In fact Los Angeles has the reputation of spending less on culture and art than any other city. Thank god we have the art and entertainment industry to support the arts as private patrons."

I'm with the Ban

Composing a grey area is how the painting of the mural was filmed and used to promote the album in a video. "Fans can listen to the album's first single 'Coming Of Age' now on the band's website, where the song is set to a visual documenting the creation of a seven story mural in Downtown Los Angeles inspired by the new album," stated a press release dated January 21.

 
That same release announced the band would be playing a free concert in Los Angeles on January 23. That day, the band announced on Facebook it would be playing "at the Supermodel mural downtown at 539 S Los Angeles St."

So the mural may not be a direct ad, but it becomes a tool for a marketing campaign to find an audience through social networking.

"The ordinance is only three months old," Jose Huizar said during the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles sponsored panel at the L.A. Art Show. "It's still in the infancy stage and can be revised."

In an email exchange this afternoon, Rick Coca from Councilmember Huizar's office stated, "Councilmember Huizar didn't work alongside our mural activists long and hard to create a venue for muralists to practice their craft on private property to have someone deface that intent by putting up banned commercial messages. That's not going to happen ... We strongly advise anyone from even attempting to do this unless their intent is to get banned from the program."

These beer and band promotions become reminders of how marketing can be disguised through fine art murals, and even challenges what is proper arts patronage. It's easy to be dazzled by how good they look, but you have to question the intent of the message. Is it art that falls within the negotiated terms to revive a mural legacy? Or was it created to raise brand awareness of a specific product?

When a mural is taken down, it prompts a lot of drama, sometimes called censorship. Yet, when a mural is replaced by a mural promoting product, there's no outcry, a shift that compromises the integrity of a mural and the ordinance.

Now when I see "Urban Bigfoot," co-sponsored by Converse and billed as one of the first legal murals under the ordinance, those high-tops stick out. The message isn't that murals will make a comeback, but advertising still has plans to leave large footprints in the city's visual culture.

UrbanBigfoot I Courtesy of LATaco
UrbanBigfoot I Courtesy of LATaco

Mural at Third and Main street January 16, 2014. Photo: viewfromaloft

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