April 2008 – Are Murals An Endangered Species?

By Judy Baca

Within the borders of the city of Los Angeles all murals must receive a permit from the Cultural Affairs Commission before they can be painted on public or private property.

This means that if you choose to paint a mural on the outside of your own property you would need to receive a permit from Cultural Affairs to do so. If you do not have a permit you could be fined or jailed and the mural can be removed by the Department of Building and Safety. This policy is apparently in question at the moment and rightfully so as it seems to be a blatant violation of first Amendment rights of the public and individual property rights which are held in higher regard than the interest of the public in most all debates in our country.

What seems to be happening is that some muralists who have been given permission to work on private walls with full support of building owners for the creation of a fine art work have sought Cultural Affairs permits and have been told that they cannot apply while the city sorts out this issue. In one case a mural was removed at Cesar Chavez and Breed Street in January of this year because it was not permitted even though they sought and were denied the right to apply for a permit. The beautiful community mural was destroyed one month after it was painted.

Actually this is not uncommon, there have been many cases in which works that were controversial perhaps only to one person who complained have been removed without notification to the artist by the Department of Building and Safety. A beautiful mural of a Zapatista was removed from a wall in East Los Angeles a couple of years ago because it did not have a permit while many banal murals which are used for decorating pizza houses or little markets with purely advertising intent are not enforced. Has the Department of Building and Safety become a mind-policing agency?

The City of Los Angeles has a sign ordinance that is written ambiguously enough to make it possible to confuse a mural with a sign. Since the percentage of language was one of the methods the city used to distinguish a sign from fine art (is it really that hard?) the advertising companies seized the opportunity to reduce language on supergraphics and declare them fine art. Today every inch of the public’s eye space is being filled with advertising and art is disappearing. Most Angelenos would advocate for control of advertising particularly supergraphics as the chosen images to dominate the urban landscape. Who wants to drive through the city and see a ten-story cell phone or Mickey Mouse as the definer of the downtown skyline? Sign legislation seems to be controlling only artists and not the creators of corporate graffiti by advertising agencies who essentially are ignoring the law and polluting the urban landscape with what amounts to corporate vandalism.

The most outrageous acts of permit violations are perpetrated by the super graphic advertising companies who often do not seek permits at all and simply pay the fines associated with illegal advertising if they are caught at all. The city does not seem to have the means or perhaps the will to enforce the law on advertising agencies consistently. What is occurring as a result is that super graphics are proliferating and art is not.

All public funding for murals in Los Angeles has ended and the SPARC mural program, which existed for 20 years, is gone. This program through a city and nonprofit partnership provided public and private monies to produce hundreds of murals in our city. SPARC is working to reinstate this program.
Is Los Angeles fast becoming an environment hostile to murals?

Judith F. Baca is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC).

Categories: Art, Politics