Don’t Call It a Comeback, Murals Have Been Here For Years

City 2 Suburbia Obey Mural
Recent OBEY Mural raising awareness about Native Americans, and based on a photo essay by photographer, Aaron Huey. Source: Erwin Recines (L.A. Taco)

There is no shortage of murals in Los Angeles, which has often been referred to as the “Mural Capital of the World”. This says a lot given how bountiful street art is other cities such as New York, Barcelona and Berlin. L.A.’s murals are just as multifarious as the many neighborhoods and citizens that make up the City of Angels. Historically, murals in L.A. have served as a vehicle for all kinds of creative civic expression; something artists and constituents in underserved communities can especially appreciate. Since the 1990s, however, city walls and real estate also became prime advertising space for commercial entities to reach their target audiences, meaning Angelenos on the roads and freeways.

Prior to 1986, public art was highly unregulated in Los Angeles, and there was no mention of murals in city code. Even after the term “mural signs” was included in municipal language, this was not clearly defined. Private and commercial interests sought to capitalize on this, claiming to have the same rights as muralists under the First Amendment, arguing that there is no distinction between outdoor advertising, billboards, signage, and public mural art. In fact, the outdoor advertisement industry filed several lawsuits against the city, leading to the imposition of an all-out moratorium on all mural painting in Los Angeles in 2002, much to the chagrin of local street artists and would-be advertisers alike. Though the mural ban has not always been strictly enforced, it has forced L.A. leaders and constituents to seriously reflect on the status quo.

Since then, Los Angeles planners, council members, artists, and commercial interests, have been immersed in a decade-long battle and convoluted negotiations. All stakeholders have been grappling with how to bring an end to this ban, and appropriately regulate outdoor signage, including digital billboards and vinyl prints. Last August, after 11 long years, the L.A. City Council voted to lift the mural ban, amending the city code, and signing a new ordinance into law at the beginning of September. Some of the main considerations the ordinance has focused on is how and if to permit and grandfather in certain “sign districts”, such as in the case of Hollywood, which has been in place since 2004, and like is now being proposed for Broadway. These special districts allow neon and off-site signage primarily on the basis that it is a historic feature of the neighborhood.

Muralist and street artists have also been forced to articulate how their art differs from strictly illegal graffiti and tagging. One local Boyle Height’s muralist, Lilia Ramirez (Lilyflor Art) asserts, “People don’t realize that many small business owners commission muralists to paint murals on their walls in order to deter graffiti. Murals of the Virgin Mary, for example, have traditionally been used in such a way, as her image is highly respected within many Latino communities.” Though Ramirez is optimistic with the recent legal developments, she still fears that the regulatory and permitting process could stifle or censor artistic voices, especially throughout traditionally disenfranchised neighborhoods of the city. But it looks like the City is both aware of, and addressing, some of these fears through participatory planning. Case in point, in one of the most recent developments in the matter, the City Council tentatively approved a pilot program allowing mural permitting on single-family homes in the neighborhoods of Eagle Rock, Cypress Park, Boyle Heights, as well as in Downtown and bordering South L.A.

Only time will tell if Los Angeles will truly reclaim its throne as the “Mural Capital of the World”, by also restoring some of its past murals and glory. For more information from various angles and for latest developments on the new mural ordinance, visit some of the following sites:

Ban Billboard Blight

L.A. City Council Connect

Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

Mobile Mural Lab

United Painters and Public Artists

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