Understanding City Policy is the First Step In Reviving Murals in Los Angeles

Mural Working Group at SCI-Arc I Ed Fuentes
Mural Working Group at SCI-Arc I 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.

In the concrete think tank of SCI-Arc, mural-minded advocates met last month in the Kappe Library conference room to be introduced to the preliminary strategy from the city of Los Angeles' sign ordinance code breaker, Tanner Blackman.

Blackman invited the first set of panelists to share their insight on mural production and aesthetics. In turn, and what took a bulk of the almost 3 1/2 hour meeting, artists and administrators were debriefed on the complicated ordinances that have limited mural production in the city.

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Highlighted by Blackman's "What is a Mural" presentation, which showed work in and out of Los Angeles, the lesson for the Mural Working Group had a game show-like subtext. It just lacked buzzers for people to ring in to answer "Is this a mural?"

Based on what current ordinances are, many future "contestants" who attend the planned series of public meetings will not score high.

Case in point: A commissioned piece outside of Los Angeles, in a civic-sponsored mural program, was made of words and thoughts painted on the exterior of a building. It was provocative, it was creative, and in the Los Angeles rulebook, it was a sign. It was not a mural, no deal, double jeopardy, no saving wheel spin.

Another category as to what makes a mural is how a piece physically connects to a wall, be it adhered to, painted on, sprayed on, or even hung. That has more bearing to the city's definition of a legal mural than content.

ManOne, Daniel Lahoda, and Isabel Rojas-Williams of the Mural Working Group I Ed Fuentes
ManOne, Daniel Lahoda, and Isabel Rojas-Williams of the Mural Working Group I Ed Fuentes

The group, made of stakeholders Blackman has spoken to during the early stages of his research, included Debra Padilla, Executive Director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center; Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles; and Pat Gomez, Arts Manager of Cultural Affairs. Artists or curators included muralist Emily Winters, Man One of Crewest Gallery, Daniel Lahoda of Jet Set Graffiti, and Jay Lopez of Art Weekend L.A. Welcoming comments were made by Jamie Bennett, COO of SCI-Arc.

The meeting had people hopeful, which is a big step compared to previous attempts at restoring murals in the city.

"I feel that for the first time, for a long time now, we have found a leader and a supporter, and we will be able to move forward and our artists will be creating murals legally again." Rojas-Williams said after the discussion.

Murals are allowed to be produced on property of the city, the county, or LAUSD, which Blackman explained to the group, contradicts the often used mantra by law enforcement that all murals are banned in the city. (On July 26, L.A.'s Northeast Valley Neighborhood City Hall in Pacoima unveiled a commissioned outdoor mural by Ignacio Gomez).

Not attending, although they made repeated requests to join this initial meeting, were members of LAPD and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who enforce current ordinances as a stop-gap to graffiti. Also requesting participation, but not present, were representatives of the offices of councilmembers who have written or supported motions to revive murals in the city.

Murals help tell the stories of communities. | Watch more videos of Emily Winters and others here.

Not that they won't have a say, but this first roundtable was designed for mural makers and administrators to freely speak out on aesthetics, says Blackman. It is also the chance for advocates to catch up on the state of murals as a collective. This can make a level playing field between all parties since City departments have scoured, interpreted, and researched ordinances in their jurisdictions and districts. (Much of it was covered in a previous column)

It may also prevent public meetings to be a repeat of what has been heard before: "Murals are too important to the city to lose"; "Why isn't Los Angeles the mural capital of the world anymore?"; "Why am I being fined by a city department, or busted by a county Sheriff, for having someone paint on my wall?" Those questions have been heard, and Blackman's assignment to find a solution is a response.

Restoring murals in Los Angeles will need input from those who create them, says Blackman. And just as important, formulating strong new ordinances will need the help of artists responding to policy, not just the heart.

More murals and street art commentary from Departures:


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