Is It Graffiti, Advertising, or Art?

A blaze of color could soon adorn more walls in the Los Angeles area, as the city gathers momentum in making amendments to the mural ordinance, which for many, would be a welcome shift for the artistic beauty of old Los Angeles. Los Angeles was once considered ‘The City of Murals’, but these iconic art pieces that provide a voice for the community and sense of public memory were banned in 2002.

“I believe the muralist community’s moral and artistic rights have been violated by the citywide mural ban,” said Carlos Rogel of SPARC, California’s Social And Public Resource Centre.

The blanket ban on city murals caused the demise of many art pieces and left the remaining urban art a target for vandalism.

Murals vulnerable to unsanctioned graffiti can fall into disrepair with no avenue for residents to preform upkeep, resulting in the only remaining option - complete removal.

Public memories had been created on these city walls for future generations to understand and enjoy.

Artists went to great lengths to capture the essence of the people and depict the diverse culture and social reforms.

These rich visuals, speaking about the city of Los Angeles, created a sense of who the migrants were and how far they had come. Yet, within the last ten years, the city was paying people to remove them; a move that made no sense to the community.

Since the 1970’s the City of Los Angeles commissioned artists to produce murals on city buildings and employed parties to maintain them.

An example of such a project is, ‘The Great Wall’ measuring 2,754 feet along the Tujunga Wash, a space that still houses these murals today.

Commissioned in 1970, Chicano artist Judith Baca, founder and executive director of California’s SPARC, employed hundreds of emerging artists to capture the social history of 1950’s Los Angeles, including migration, land rights and assimilation into the American culture.

It still stands as a proud public memory of Angeleno history.

Is it art, graffiti, or commercial advertising? This uncertain distinction is what caused the ban on murals in the city of Los Angeles back in 2002. Tanner Blackman, Los Angeles city planner said the city has been “trying to address the issue in defining art.”

Blackman enlisted support from artists and recommendations from SPARC, which he says will incorporate a “time, place and manner” ordinance.

The hope is that they can provide guidelines covering size, duration and maintenance of murals without regulating the content. Also, that the ordinance will deter commercial advertisers who prefer constant rotation of content.

Rogel said that SPARC’s input will help “define murals within the new proposed sign ordinance,” in a way that both the “Artist Rights and cultural production will be protected.”

Blackman suggested a clause in the ordinance to prevent private property owners from making a profit by renting out their wall space.

Long-time artist, Ajax Garcia of West Hollywood accepted this as a step in the right direction. “We are not in it for a profit but the expression of freedom,” he said.

Rogel said artists have been battling authorities since the late 1980s, when the wording in the ordinance changed from ‘murals’ to ‘mural signs.’ The portion with the word ‘signs’ contained stipulation of a minimal text allowance. This change in semantics posed problems for the ‘graffiti’ style of art.

Blackman said you have to “create a legal and implementable definition of what a mural is,” that this will make murals different from “the concept of the signage.”

Many private property owners have been using Twitter to talk about the pressure they feel from private graffiti-removal groups.

As a result, they are are taking it upon themselves to whitewash walls. Over the last four years, 10 citations have been given out.

Many see decorating their property as an elemental right of ownership.

Tony Lapas of West Hollywood said he could not understand why so many murals had been removed, as “they provided an insight into the diverse culture in Los Angeles” and gave a much-needed face-lift to old buildings.

Miguel Rodriguez, a long-time West Los Angeles resident, was saddened that some of the murals had been removed and said that, “our homages [sic] to Chicanos will be lost; they were part of our community and made us feel proud”.

Chicano artists provide a “voice for our community and future generations can see how far we have come.” Now, much of that is lost he said.

The current laws restricting artists from freely expressing themselves do not simply police art, but censor scenes of social and cultural change and expressions of our communities’ heritage.

It is this vibrant and diverse heritage that Los Angeles known for and it needs to be retained. No artistic works should be obliterated, and the City of Los Angeles should encourage emerging artists to restore the public murals and create more which will evoke the diversity of culture in this city.