A PORTION OF EMILY WINTERS’ MURAL “JAYA” at the corner of Dell Avenue and Venice Boulevard. Unlike a number of other cities in the nation, Los Angeles does not draw a distinction between commercial signs and art. (Argonaut photo by Gary Walker)

A recent challenge to Los Angeles’ permanent sign ordinance was upheld last month by U.S. District Court Judge Audrey Collins, allowing city officials to continue to fine-tune the new ordinance that will prohibit billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising.

While those who have called for a ban on billboards cheer the ruling, artists and muralists remain disenchanted that public art has not been included in the new sign law.

Long viewed as the “mural capital of the world,” Los Angeles, and Venice in particular, are home to a variety of well-known artists and muralists. The city’s historical bond with community art, emblazoned with bright colors and searing social messages, began to wane near the end of the 1990s, as outdoor advertising firms began to petition city officials for room on the public visual landscape.

Los Angeles has received millions of dollars over the last decade in exchange for giving outdoor advertising and supergraphic firms the right to display their products on large digital billboards and later supergaphics on the sides of city property, where murals at one time found a home.

Artists point to cities like San Jose, Laguna Beach, Portland, San Francisco and Atlanta, which have sign ordinances in place that also include a provision for murals. More importantly, they say these cities view signs and murals as two distinct entities. Los Angeles city officials, however, equate signs and murals as the same.

“If other cities have successfully found a way (to differentiate a sign and a mural), then perhaps our Cultural Affairs and Planning departments can find a solution by working with these cities,” said Emily Winters, a Venice muralist whose colorful artwork adorns the Venice Boardwalk and its surrounding streets.

Rip Cronk, whose Venice Beach murals “Venice Reconstituted” and “Morning Shot,” a large-scale painting of the late lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrision, believes that the city should reconsider how it evaluates art and outdoor signage.

“The essential difference between a sign and art is content,” Cronk told The Argonaut in a telephone interview from his home near Mt. Shasta. “The law should be rewritten (to differentiate between a sign and a mural).”

The inability to distinguish between signs and art has also prohibited local beautification projects from coming to fruition.

During the summer, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council and a Del Rey property owner united to consider holding a contest for young artists, with the winners earning a cash prize for painting several mural panels on a fence that faces the Marina Freeway. The fence has been a favorite target for taggers, and the idea was to create a community project that would help create an aesthetic landmark in Del Rey, as well as give young artists an opportunity to display their talents.

“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,” said Peter Van Weelden, who owns the Del Rey property. “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.”

During a moratorium period on commercial signs earlier this year, the Cultural Affairs Commission presented a plan on how the city government could incorporate fine art into the new sign ordinance. On March 26th, the Planning Department recommended lifting the 2002 ban on murals, but chose to wait until a later date to consider further allowance of murals under a separate ordinance.

Scott Drapkin, a senior planner in Laguna Beach, said that his city does not view supergraphics and murals as the same, and Laguna Beach city leaders would not typically look favorably at large signs and advertisements.

“We generally discourage the kind of supergraphics that you see in Los Angeles on the sides of tall buildings,” Drapkin said. “And we certainly believe that we are able to distinguish between a mural and a commercial sign.”

The Portland, Oregon City Council voted in July to allow murals again in its city. In 2003, media conglomerate Clear Channel sued the city for allowing murals but not billboards. That forced property owners with murals on their buildings to either board up portions of the images, take the murals down completely or else pay a $50-per-day fine.

The new law draws a distinction between advertisements and murals, while at the same time attempting to respect the state’s free speech protections.

Murals will now be permitted within Portland city limits, as long as they are hand-painted and remain up for at least five years.

Judy Baca, founder of the Venice-based Social Public Art and Resources Center (SPARC), views the debate over including murals as a part of a new reconfigured statute regulating signs as largely a distraction from what she says is more pressing — the preservation of these visual social commentaries.

“I don’t want to be distracted from the important issue, which is the restoration of public art,” Baca said in an interview earlier this summer. “Public art is disappearing at an alarming rate and a generation of young people will soon have not had the opportunity to work on or see these murals.”

Cronk, who painted his first California mural during the time that he was a muralist-in-residence at SPARC, thinks that most casual observers can tell the difference between art and commercial advertising.

“When you walk down the street and you see my artwork or that of another artist, one does not see commercial signs,” he said.

In February, the arts center launched an initiative called the Mural Rescue Program to draw attention to how murals have become an afterthought for city officials and to resurrect the public’s interest in the importance of these social art pieces.

According to Baca, each year, several murals are painted over by city agencies or defaced by graffiti artists. SPARC representatives also say that many murals are being painted over to make room for supergraphics and commercial art.

Some who are not residents of Los Angeles but visit from time to time, like Drapkin, say that they can no longer tell the difference between art and commercial advertising when they venture to the city.

“Most murals in Los Angeles tend to be supergraphics,” Drapkin stated.

Pat Gomez, the arts manager of Cultural Affairs, could not be reached for comments at Argonaut press time.