A decree from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety that murals painted on public or private property are required to have a permit or face removal and a possible fine for the property owner has stunned members of the vast Los Angeles artistic community, exacerbating an already fierce debate around First Amendment freedoms and the legality of a municipal law that equates art with signs.

At the heart of the dispute is a sign ordinance that some say blurs the line between signs and murals, a distinction that evokes passionate responses from a number of local artists.

Judy Baca, founder and executive director of the Social and Public Arts Resource Center (SPARC), a Venice-based community arts nonprofit organization, has taken issue with the city’s sign ordinance as it is written and the disparity that she feels exists for decorative artworks in the public domain and the surge in commercial graphics on buildings and banners around Los Angeles.

Baca, a UCLA professor of fine arts and a renowned muralist who directed the painting of the Great Wall of Los Angeles, one of the world’s largest murals, believes that comparing murals to advertising leads to less art and more commercial graphics around the city.

“When the sign ordinance was enacted, the city didn’t make a clear distinction between a sign and a mural,” Baca said in an interview at SPARC earlier this month. “They tied it to language, and made a distinction that a mural is less than three percent text and a sign has more text.”

Subsequently, “super graphics” companies began to reduce the wording in their advertisements and reintroduced their signs as artworks.

The Building and Safety Department is now responsible for issuing permits for the painting of murals on both private and public venues. Until last year, the city Cultural Affairs Department, the agency which at one time handled the permit process, now grants consent for muralists only on public property.

“The Building and Safety Department has taken the position that these murals violate the city’s sign ordinance,” wrote Frank Mateljan, press deputy for city attorney Rocky Delgadillo in an e-mail. “Only Building and Safety has the authority and discretion as to if and when it will bring an enforcement action.”

Murals painted without a permit face the possibility of removal and the property owner could be fined or jailed.

City officials say that there are remedies that muralists who wish to create artworks can pursue in order for their creations to be legal.

“An artist could seek to legalize his/her sign by obtaining a variance from the city or could appeal any Building and Safety ‘Order to Comply’,” Mateljan stated in an e-mail response.

Muralists and their supporters say that many of their fellow artists have been denied permits by the city, even after they have obtained permission from private individuals to create artwork on the sides of their buildings.

In addition, some artists allege that there are murals that have been removed without notifying the artist, which would be a violation of the Visual Arts Rights Act, a federal law enacted in 1990 that mandates, among many things, that artists must be notified before work that they have created is moved or destroyed.

Some artists feel that there is a direct nexus between the decrease in permits issued to muralists and an ordinance that they see as one that is at best ambiguous and confuses advertisement signs with murals.

“Do we want every square inch of eye space in this city to be about consumer goods, or do we want to create a city that is livable and beautiful and has public space?” Baca asked. “That is what we are deciding right now.”

A number of other local artists also see the tide slowly turning away from government-sanctioned public art and toward glossy, revenue-generating commercial graphics and advertisements.

“Graphic signs have become a visual blight and a gray area between signs and murals,” contends Emily Winters, chair of the Venice Arts Council and a Venice-based artist. “[City officials] seem to want to control what goes on walls, and as an artist I find that very offensive.”

Stash Maleski, director of an art production company in Venice called In Creative Unity Art, laments, “Everything to the city is considered to be a sign, regardless of whether it’s a mural or not.”

Will Caperton y Montoya, the Cultural Affairs Department’s director of marketing and development, says that his agency is looking for ways to resolve this conflict regarding the sign ordinance with muralists.

“We would like to report to our constituents that the department is seeking to find solutions to this issue,” he said. “We view murals as an artistic asset and we consider Los Angeles to be the mural capital of the world.”

The first mural program in Los Angeles was initiated by Baca, who has painted murals throughout the nation, in 1970 and was later supported financially during the 1980s by Mayor Tom Bradley.

In East Los Angeles and primarily minority communities, Baca assembled teens who were in gangs into teams to paint decorative, colorful murals with social justice, cultural and historical overtones. The program lasted more than two decades but in recent years all public funding for the SPARC mural program has been eliminated.

Like many artists, Maleski views the sign ordinance as very ambiguous and believes that causes a great deal of confusion to artists and city representatives.

“As it now stands, there are no guidelines for muralists to follow,” said Maleski.

Baca is distressed that the proliferation of commercial graphics has begun to dominate much of the public space and she is worried that the next generation of muralists will not have the same opportunities as their predecessors.

“The loss of some of the legacy pieces is really tragic,” she said. “Los Angeles was the muralist capital of the world, and that is changing now that there’s more control and more bureaucracy.”

“When murals really flourished in Los Angeles, there was no permitting process,” she added. “This really is a First Amendment issue, and we have heard from muralists and artists from all over the nation on this issue.”

Caperton y Montoya said that the Cultural Affairs Department would continue to back muralists and all forms of public art.

“The department has the interests of the artists first and foremost, and we want to do all that we can to make sure that these fine arts murals do not disappear,” he said.

Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, expressed his support for SPARC and the art that it has created for over 30 years, but refrained from discussing the sign ordinance.

“We’re very supportive of Judy and the quality of work that her muralists do,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut. “SPARC is a richly treasured part of the Venice arts community and their murals are part of the fabric of our society.”

From Baca’s perspective, residents can play an important role in the future of murals and creative expression in Los Angeles.

“From my viewpoint, the citizens of Los Angeles have a choice to make about what kind of city they want,” she reiterated. “I would call for people to add their voice to the complaints about super graphics and ads that are not good for us.”

Calls to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office for comment had not been returned at Argonaut press time.