Paul Van Weelden thought that he had come up with an ideal solution to the incessant problem of graffiti defacing the walls of his Del Rey property. One of them, which faces the Marina Freeway, was constantly under assault by the “taggers” who use the wall to display their brand of artwork, he says.
“Our idea was to run a contest and invite bonafide artists to put murals back there,” Van Weelden, who manages real estate properties, told The Argonaut.
But he and others would soon learn that because Los Angeles city officials equate commercial signage with artistic expression, the once promising solution would be relegated to the back burner.
The City Council is in the process of redesigning its sign law that will include new regulations on outdoor advertising and possibly new sign districts, but it will not include denoting the difference between murals and signs, say representatives of the Planning Department.
“If a mural is on private property, the enforcement agency is the Department of Building and Safety,” said Jimmy Tokeshi, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works. “If a mural is on public property, there is a process through which Public Works can issue a permit.”
The Cultural Affairs Department would be required to review the artwork before a mural could be installed, Tokeshi added.
Van Weelden approached the Del Rey Neighborhood Council and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office with the mural plan in July and both immediately agreed to support the community initiative.
“We saw this as a way to give the community an aesthetic benefit and eliminate blight at the same time,” said Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council.
To date, Van Weelden says that he has spent approximately $30,000 to remove unwanted spraypaint from his wall.
“The idea of a mural project that we had hoped would be enduring is different from someone putting up a sign or someone tagging a building,” he said. “We are going to hopefully persevere in getting some understanding that what we had in mind was not a sign, it’s beautification that will add to the community, as opposed to what we have now.”
Longtime community members also supported the efforts by Van Weelden and the local council.
“The original idea was to have artists submit samples and ideas for a mural, hold a contest and then select the most creative submissions for a mural project,” explained Steve Knight, the chair of the council’s planning and land use committee. “This was a very good idea that combined a private effort to stave off graffiti and have a mural in Del Rey.”
Redick called the city’s handling of the proposed mural initiative “bureaucratic bungling that is about to destroy a community benefit.”
“A mural would have accomplished two important things,” Redick continued. “It would focus and highlight artistic expression in Del Rey, and it would have given young urban artists an opportunity to display their skills and learn to use their talent in a positive way.”
Stash Maleski, the director of the Venice-based art organization In Creative Unity Art, which curates the Venice Art Walls near the Boardwalk, agrees.
“(A mural) would make Del Rey much more vibrant,” Maleski said.
The local council’s backing gave Van Weelden a warm feeling.
“I’ve spent much of my life in front of various city councils, commissions and boards, and that’s the first time that I ever received applause,” he recalled.
The plan was to feature 18 mural panels of approximately 20 by 17 feet, which would not only alleviate the problem with graffiti but also give Del Rey one of its first aesthetic markers.
“The idea of having a building and letting (local muralists) show their art in a reasonable way adds to their self-esteem and they can use that in their (future) job opportunities, as opposed to coming out at night and painting dumpsters,” Van Weelden said.
The winning artists would have been paid a sum of money by Van Weelden for their artwork, and the Randall/McAnany Company, a Del Rey-based painting and wall covering contractor, agreed to donate its services to do the preparation and treatment work on the wall prior to initiating the project.
The winners were to be announced on Sunday, October 18th, which is Del Rey Day.
Rosendahl, who represents Del Rey, said that due to pending litigation with outdoor advertising companies, popular projects like the Del Rey murals would not be able to proceed at the moment.
“We are waiting for the dust to settle on that, and then we’ll see where we stand,” he said.
The councilman said that there is a clear distinction between a billboard and a mural.
“A mural is an expression of art and a compliment of community energy,” he asserted. “I’m a passionate believer in separating art from billboards and other signs.”
Like Rosendahl, Van Weelden does not view murals and outdoor advertising as the same thing.
“I think that there’s a difference between artwork and advertising,” he said. “What we’re looking for is something that creates a better appearance for the community. We’re not advertising anything.”
Redick sees the murals as a community investment in Del Rey.
“My position is that it does not violate the sign ordinance because it is a community benefit,” said the Del Rey council president. “Whenever you develop a sense of community pride, you develop community equity.”
Maleski says that like Venice, a Del Rey mural would help cement the community’s identity and provide a cultural landmark.
“Murals give a neighborhood and a community life and vibrancy,” he said. “It’s a shame that more young artists won’t be able to pursue their artistic expression.”
Van Weelden says that he is still hopeful that the popular project can get a reprieve.
“We’re stymied at the moment, but maybe the city in time will see it differently and then we will continue on,” Van Weelden said.
Redick, who is optimistic as well, added, “This really could be a postcard moment for Del Rey.”
Building and Safety senior inspector Tom Huerta did not return calls for comment as of Argonaut press time.