A new set of guidelines being considered by Los Angeles city officials would create a distinction between mural art and outdoor advertisements.
At a Dec. 7 press conference, city planning officials announced the proposed changes that would permit murals to be painted on public property after nearly a decade of prohibiting them.
Since 2002, city officials have equated outdoor advertising with visual art to the consternation of painters and muralists.
Once known as the “mural capital of the world,” Los Angeles has now taken a back seat to cities such as Portland, Ore., which separates art from commercial signage.
In Venice, home of many of the region’s most recognized muralists, the possibility of a new era of artists having the opportunity to share their work with the public was well received by muralist Emily Winters.
“It’s what we’ve been working on for a long time,” said Winters, whose murals Endangered Species and Jaya adorn walls in Venice.
In Portland, there are two ways that murals can be installed: one being through a public art program where they gain funding and are incorporated into the city’s public art.
The second is under Portland’s Original Art Murals Project, which is part of the new city mural code change.
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl submitted a motion to the council June 1 that would 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.
Tanner Blackman, the city planner who is working on the mural ordinance, said the proposal to separate art from commercial speech is based largely on the Portland law as well as the motion submitted by Rosendahl.
“This ordinance will address particularly murals on private property, where they are currently banned,” Blackman said.
Blackman said the City Council requested that city planners begin to address crafting distinctions between outdoor advertising and art after a federal court dismissed a billboard company’s request for permits to erect signs and supergraphics.
World Wide Rush LLC sued Los Angeles after the city instituted a ban on outdoor advertising in 2008. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the City Council did not violate the First Amendment right to free speech of billboard companies when it allowed exceptions to its citywide ban.
For Venice Beach videographer and photographer Tony Vera, the new ordinance cannot come soon enough. Vera wants to have a mural painted of one of his favorite singers, the late Teena Marie, who passed away last December.
Marie, who was born Mary Christine Brockert, was raised in the Oakwood neighborhood and was a Venice High School graduate, and Vera feels that a mural would pay homage to her career.
“I hope it’s true,” he responded when asked if he had heard about the move to distinguish murals from signs.
“This isn’t about me. This is for Teena and the community.”
Cynthia Rogers, the co-chair of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s arts committee, welcomes having guidelines for murals instead of art being equated to commercial speech.
“I think it would be invaluable to make that distinction as arts (such as mural art) should not be unduly regulated and restricted in the same manner as commercial speech,” Rogers said. “The challenge is whether it is possible to make such a distinction without triggering legalities such as the First Amendment protections.
“In the alternative, perhaps there are solutions to be put in place that would allow for protection of existing murals as well as encouragement of future murals,” she continued. “Right now, it appears that progress is being made with a consensus among key groups such as active non-profits, advisory boards and the City Council – all agreeing that something must be done swiftly.”
The World Wide Rush case last year set the tone for city planning representatives to begin to examine how to create separate regulations for art, according to Blackman.
“We’ve been working on this for a while,” he said. “We had to wait until the World Wide case was settled before we could consider a new ordinance.”
Rosendahl, who represents Venice, met with Vera after he learned about the Teena Marie mural project. “We’re holding up Tony Vera’s dream,” he said. “I would like to see anything that comes out of the Planning Commission to be respectful of the artists and the integrity of the artist.
“My hope is that we can get something that really appreciates the artistry of Venice.”
Blackman said he has been conducting public workshops about the ordinance around the city and hopes to hold at least one on the Westside early next year.
“There is a 60-day comment period that began Dec. 7 and will go on until Feb. 8,” he said.
Vera, who wants the mural of Marie painted by iconic muralist Rip Cronk on the side of a building on Pacific Avenue in Venice, is eager to see the city act on the proposal.
“It’s frustrating that we have to wait so long,” he said. “I really want to get this done.”
Blackman said he understands the frustration of artists as well as fans of mural art, but city planners do not want to rush a set of guidelines that do not meet legal requirements as well as the tastes of Los Angeles’ artistic community.
“It’s important to get it right,” he said.
Rogers was optimistic that city leaders will be open to paving the way for a new mural ordinance.
“I believe the City Council will hear more on potential solutions in the top of the new year, which is exciting news for all,” she said.