BY GARY WALKER
mural community received what many feel was a bittersweet victory on
February 19th, when the Los Angeles Planning Commission voted to view
murals and signs as separate objects, a position that artists have been
arguing for nearly a decade.
But their hopes that these artistic
expressions would be incorporated into a new sign ordinance were
deflated when the commission voted to include murals in the new law
only after a number of other concerns about the proposed ordinance were
"The distinction between murals and signs is simple;
it's the intent," said Judith Baca of the Social Art and Public
Resource Center (SPARC), a Venice-based nonprofit arts center that
produces and preserves public art. "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."
The proliferation of super
graphics and outdoor advertisements have far outpaced murals over the
last ten years, a fact that causes artists like Baca great distress.
parts of our city's legacy are being forgotten or damaged by graffiti,
and as we lose these murals, we lose a part of ourselves," said Baca,
The arts center has launched an initiative
called the Mural Rescue Program that began in February to draw
attention to how murals have become an afterthought to 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.
Contractors hired by the city government to remove "tagging" from city
property often damage murals, due to the chemicals that are used, and
the protective coating on murals is often damaged. In other cases,
SPARC representatives say that many murals are being painted over to
make room for super graphics and commercial art, which generates large
sums of revenue for municipal coffers.
"We are witnessing a massive corporatization of the public space," said Baca.
Porter, a photographer at SPARC, has a large role in the arts center's
quest to preserve the remaining murals throughout the city, including
those in Venice, long considered a haven for artistic expression.
county and the city spend almost $70 million a year on graffiti
abatement and almost nothing on arts education," Porter, a former
student of Baca's at UCLA, pointed out. "The two things are not
mutually exclusive, and what we want to do is create a program to save
our remaining murals."
The campaign's Web site,
SaveLAMurals.org/, gives an overview of its plan to save the 105 murals
that have been painted in Los Angeles over the last three decades, many
of them by disciples of Baca.
"Now is the time to turn hope into
action by encouraging city officials to reallocate a percentage of
graffiti abatement monies to a Mural Rescue Program and to save Los
Angeles' legacy of public murals," the Web site states.
Porter says that this initiative can bring an added bonus.
is another way to employ youth as well and to educate them about the
importance of murals, and redirect youth that might be tagging," she
The Web site has had nearly 1,000 hits thus far, say SPARC
officials, and Baca says that the campaign has progressed better than
she had hoped.
"I think that it has been incredibly successful,
given the comments that we've received," she said. "It really speaks to
the relationship between murals and the city."
The plan to
rescue artwork with social, historical and political content is being
conducted against the backdrop of another campaign being waged by
artists at City Hall.
Following a unanimous vote in December by
the Los Angeles City Council to place a three-month ban on commercial
billboards and graphics, the Planning Commission was instructed to
review the city policy that not only has disallowed murals nearly a
decade, but views the distinct art form the same as commercial signage.
the moment, there is no process for the permitting of murals," Pat
Gomez, murals manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs, confirmed.
who feel that their unique artistic expressions have long been
suppressed in favor of commercial advertising are planning a full-court
press to influence the commissioners following the council's moratorium
on billboards, and many see the consideration of a new sign ordinance
as an opportunity to resuscitate an artform that they feel has been
muted by city officials for far too long.
Supporters of public
art came away pleased that the commission agreed to acknowledge the
distinction between murals and signs, but lamented the decision to
delay action on incorporating this provision into a new ordinance until
other matters are fully discussed.
"This means that we will have
to wait that much longer to get an ordinance that will allow for any
form of a legal mural," said Stash Maleski, the director for In
Creative Unity Art, a Venice-based art production company specializing
Maleski was heartened by the commission's decision to
work with the Cultural Affairs Commission and the Department of
Cultural Affairs to craft a future plan for murals.
"These are the appropriate city agencies to deal with issues of art and culture," Maleski said.
Caperton y Montoya, the director of marketing and development for the
Department of Cultural Affairs, indicated in a previous interview that
his agency has artists' best interests in mind and looks forward to
working on the mural plan.
"We view murals as an artistic asset
and we consider Los Angeles to be the mural capital of the world,"
Caperton y Montoya said. "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."
believes that drawing the important difference between commercial signs
and murals is critical, Baca feels that the debate is largely a
distraction from what is really more pressing, which is 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," said SPARC's founder. "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."
The commission will revisit incorporating murals into the new sign ordinance over the next several weeks.
Gail Goldberg, the director of the Planning Department, did not return calls for comment at Argonaut press time.