Times Staff Writer

A storm is raging in Hawaii's capital, but this tempest has nothing to do with the weather.

Once again, Laguna Beach artist Robert Wyland is at the center of a controversy, this time over a "Whaling Wall" mural that he is painting on the side of a Waikiki condominium complex. The mural, now taking shape at the Ilikai Marina building on a reverse L-shaped wall that is 310 feet long and 20 stories high, is under fire from two civic groups and a local developer. The three opponents filed suit in January, claiming that the mural violates the state's anti-billboard law and also a city ordinance restricting the size of commercial signs to no more than 24 square feet.

Wyland's painting covers more than 23,000 square feet. When the mural is completed, it will depict nine life-size humpback whales, numerous dolphins, assorted sea creatures and will be topped by a breaching 60-foot humpback. It is to be finished April 5 and dedicated at a ceremony the next day.

Wyland and his supporters argue that the mural is a work of art and, therefore, not subject to the laws designed to regulate commercial signs and billboards. Wyland's work also has earned the praise of the Cousteau Society, Greenpeace, the Orange County Marine Institute and other oceanographic groups.

On Monday, Wyland won the first legal challenge to the mural when 1st Circuit Judge Philip Chun denied a temporary restraining order requested by attorneys for the Waikiki Improvement Assn., the Outdoor Circle (a watchdog organization that polices sign and billboard violations) and developer Jack Myers.

Said Reid Nakamura, attorney for Wyland and the Ilikai Marina owners, who were also named in the suit, "I think this (ruling) may be a major setback to their case. They were hoping the judge would rule in their favor so that might turn the public tide against the mural."

Wyland is no stranger to controversy, as most of his other works were completed only after there were similar battles. As the sixth in a projected series of 100 whale murals Wyland hopes to create throughout the world, the Honolulu "Whaling Wall" joins murals in Laguna Beach, Dana Point, Marineland in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Seattle and White Rock, Canada.

When he proposed his first outdoor "Whaling Wall," completed in Laguna Beach in 1981, the City Council insisted that he select another site, contending that the original location would have created a traffic hazard.

Last year, some White Rock residents objected to an outside artist's doing a large mural in that city. Wyland is now trying to overcome opposition to his proposed whale mural for La Jolla.

Wyland began work on the Honolulu "Whaling Wall" in late December, after almost two years of planning.

"We've been getting a tremendous amount of support," Wyland, 28, said in an interview. "We went through all the appropriate channels before starting work on it, and everybody was very supportive. I checked with the city, and they said it was no infringement (of billboard or sign ordinances). The city even wrote a letter saying this was not a billboard, that it is a piece of art."

One of Wyland's supporters is actor and art aficionado John Hillerman, co-star of the Hawaii-based television series "Magnum, P.I."

A collector of marine art and an admirer of Wyland's work, Hillerman said he was surprised when controversy arose over the whale wall. "It did surprise me," Hillerman said. "It is, after all, a work of art. Most people love it, but there is a small group who claim that it is a billboard. If it is a billboard, then all public murals are billboards. That's a pretty feeble argument. I think once it is finished and people see how beautiful it is, the arguments will disappear."

Wyland picked up additional backing on Thursday in the form of a certificate of appreciation from the Hawaii state Senate. The certificate was presented to Wyland by state Sens. Neil Abercrombie and Mary Jane McMurdo.

Said Abercrombie, who founded the state's Culture and Arts Committee, "In essence, the certificate is to recognize his contribution to decorative art for buildings and to recognize the difference between such artistic endeavors and billboards, which we are very much opposed to in Hawaii.

"Sen. McMurdo and I are attempting to come up with language for a bill that will broaden anti-billboard ordinances and state law to encourage decorative art on buildings. We've got a lot of high-rises that have virtually no aesthetic appeal. We hope Wyland's piece will encourage other building owners to start thinking about what they could do to make their buildings more aesthetically appealing."

Although Wyland is receiving no payment for the mural--he is donating his time and effort and materials have been donated by local businesses--opposition groups insist that he will benefit financially because his reputation will be enhanced.

"Artist Wyland has a legitimate interest in displaying his talent and in selling his posters that demonstrate that talent," said Bernard Bays, attorney for the groups and developer who oppose the mural. "The Outdoor Circle has a legitimate interest in trying to prevent billboards and commercial paintings from becoming commonplace in Hawaii. The Waikiki Improvement Assn. has a legitimate interest in maintaining Waikiki as an attractive visitor destination.

"Mr. Wyland's painting included whales and it was very well done," Bays added, "which made this case a particularly difficult one in spite of the fact that the painting does cover an area one-half acre in size."

"I am trying to get all the parties together this week to work out a sensible compromise that is fair to everybody involved," Bays said, adding that the three plaintiffs will continue their legal challenges. The next step is a preliminary injunction hearing. No date has been set for the hearing, but Bays predicted it would not be until late April--after the mural is scheduled to be completed.

Another complication in the opposition case is that there are other large murals in Honolulu, notably a mosaic rainbow on the Rainbow Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel. "Whatever problems the (Wyland) mural has, the Rainbow Tower would have the same problem. The broader issue is that if the people of Hawaii decide they are no longer opposed to the billboard law, then the law should be changed," Bays said.

Responded Abercrombie, "The (opposition groups) haven't stayed up with the times. They haven't realized that this is not an effort to reverse the anti-billboard philosophy but an opportunity to utilize talent like Wyland's to enhance the attractiveness of the area."

When the lawsuit was filed in January, Wyland took it in stride. "I went in looking at it like I've got nothing to lose because I'm giving of myself a gift to Hawaii," he said. "The aloha spirit is here, and the people are very much in tune with whales and the environment. They've rallied to my support."

Wyland will likely be looking for even more support for the "Whaling Wall" he intends to paint in Japan. Because Japan is one of the few nations that has not banned commercial whaling, Wyland is prepared for the criticism that undoubtedly arise.

"I'm not going in screaming 'Save the Whales' or 'Don't eat whale meat,' " he said. "I'm not looking at it as a protest against whaling. I see what I'm doing as the art of saving whales. I can go to Japan or Russia and do a mural and it is a subtle message. It shows people the beauty of whales. Art is a real communicator. It's one way I can make an impact on the cause.

"When you do something on this scale, you really leave yourself open to criticism. But all artists have to deal with controversy."

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