Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl introduced a motion to his colleagues June 1 that would create an ordinance to specifically identify murals as art instead of signs, as the city currently considers them.

“I’m putting this motion in because I strongly believe in separating art from commercial advertising,” the councilman told The Argonaut the day before he submitted his motion. “(Murals) are artistic expression that are often intertwined with culture and history, and they deserve to be viewed separately from commercial signage.”

The Venice Neighborhood Council unanimously backed a resolution May 24 to encourage Rosendahl to submit the motion to the council.

Clark McCutcheon, who submitted the Venice motion for the mural ordinance, said the idea to craft a new law that distinguishes mural art from commercial signs has been discussed at the neighborhood council level and Rosendahl’s office since last fall.

“Whitney Blumenfeld (Rosendahl’s planning deputy) felt that there was an opportunity to introduce an ordinance regarding murals,” McCutcheon explained. “She and the planning department thought the timing was right and that there could be an opening to create an ordinance and a pilot program.”

City planning officials, as well as the Cultural Affairs Department and the Building and Safety Department, have equated signs with murals for nearly a decade in Los Angeles, much to the consternation of painters and muralists.

“The distinction between murals and signs is simple; it’s the intent,” Judy Baca of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), a Venice-based nonprofit arts center that produces and preserves public art, said in an earlier interview with The Argonaut. “If it’s about beauty or social interaction, it’s a mural. If it’s designed to sell a product, then it’s advertising, pure and simple.”

Emily Winters, a Venice muralist whose Endangered Species artwork adorns the Venice Boardwalk on Ocean Front Walk, concurs. “It’s very frustrating,” Winters said. “It seems so simple when you say an advertisement is selling a product while murals are about the artistic content.”

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a new sign law Dec. 17, 2008 outlawing outdoor advertising, and muralists and other artists hoped then that a separate law distinguishing art from commercial signage would emerge from that action. And many take issue with the fact that prior to the new ordinance prohibiting outdoor advertising, billboard companies were granted thousands of permits while no permits for murals have been issued for art on public property in more than a decade.

The Building and Safety Department is responsible for issuing permits for the painting of murals on both private and public venues.

Los Angeles was once considered the “mural capital of the world” and Venice is still home to many of the artistic, colorful tapestries that adorn privately-owned buildings. Recently, renowned muralist Rip Cronk added to his earlier mural Venice Reconstituted, stretching the artwork at Speedway and Windward Circle. It has now been rechristened Venice Kinesis.

Jill Prestup, the president of the Venice Historical Society, noted that the beach community’s art often has a distinct local flavor and enhances the experience for tourists who come to Venice. “The eclectic mix of murals, like Rip Cronk’s new mural, tell a story and add so much to the ambiance of Venice,” she said.

Mark Redick, the former president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, was involved in a mural project with Del Rey businessman Peter Van Weelden last year, but the project stalled due to the city’s policy on murals.

“Our efforts were stymied because the city interlinks art with commercial advertising,” Redick said.

Van Weelden wanted to hold a contest where he would have given a cash prize to the winning artist who submitted the most original idea for a mural on the back wall of one of his businesses, which faces the 90 Freeway. Taggers often deface the wall with graffiti, and the idea was to create a neighborhood beautification project while instilling neighborhood dignity with art representative of Del Rey, Redick said.

“A mural project could have developed a sense of community pride, which translates into community equity,” he said. “In these trying economic times, what could be better than boosting a community through an accomplishment of civic pride?”

Rosendahl, a former Venice resident, said the beachside community’s history with murals stokes the art community’s passion to protect and preserve what they have as well as whets their collective appetites for more.

“We have a very deep, rich mural history in Venice that often tells these wonderful stories of heritage and culture,” he said. “They are clearly artistic expression and deserve to be viewed separately from commercial advertising.”

Redick said a mural like the one that he was working on with Van Weelden and another former Del Rey Neighborhood Council leader, Stephen Knight, could have drawn out potential artists who were previously undiscovered, as well as helped to eradicate an eyesore in his neighborhood.

“We want to showcase local artistic talents and properly channel them into something that can benefit all the stakeholders of Del Rey,” he explained. “The current city policy on murals not only discourages nurturing artistic talent, but also efforts to eliminate blight,” he noted. “This could have been a ‘Kodak moment’ for Del Rey.”

McCutcheon said his council worked with a number of organizations like SPARC, as well as the council’s arts committee for several months before drafting the resolution that they sent to Rosendahl. “The difficulty with these (initiatives) is that they take time,” he said. “We thought the quicker that we can push this through, the better.”

Winters said any ordinance has to be very clear on the distinction between murals and advertising. “Advertisers pay to put there signs up, but muralists are paid to put their art on buildings,” she said.

McCutcheon said having his local council support Rosendahl’s motion was almost a foregone conclusion. “Venice is the epicenter for murals,” he said. “We are very passionate about mural preservation and protection.”

Also included in Rosendahl’s motion is a citywide pilot program for issuing permits to murals.