Art or Advertising? : Controversy Over Oversize L.A. Murals Looms Large

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perched on gray boulders that seem to jut out of the Santa Monica Freeway, the Jeep Wrangler looks as if it is about to thunder off the side of an old garment warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, flattening oncoming cars.

The ad, part of a nationwide trend in wall murals featuring hamburgers a giant would choke on, bottles of beer that would flood a stadium and jeans that would blanket a small town, is whipping up a controversy just as colossal.

Patrick Media Group, one of Los Angeles' largest billboard companies, painted the 50-foot-tall mural on the side of a building on San Pedro Street in May in defiance of Los Angeles' sign law. The city cited the building owner last week and ordered it removed.

"We knew all along that we would get cited," said Dash Stolarz, a Patrick spokeswoman. "This was meant to be a test case."

Patrick insists that its mural is art, not advertising, and thereby legal. But the company's competitors, who are locked out of the market by the sign law and a Patrick mural monopoly, are outraged. Envious of Patrick's ability to loom above mere billboards, some have complained to the city that officials are playing favorites with Patrick.

"Bigger is different. Bigger is unusual. And bigger might be better for lack of a better phrase," said Ross Snyder, who handles the Miller Brewing Co. account for Patrick.

All signs viewed mainly from a freeway are illegal in Los Angeles, with one exception: those deemed art by the city's Cultural Affairs Commission. Painted wall signs with less than 3% text go to the commission for approval.

The 3% definition, drafted in 1986, was intended to draw the line between art and advertising. But more than ever advertisers rely on visual impact and logos to get their message across. Patrick says the mural it painted for Jeep-Eagle has almost no text and meets the art definition.

"The 3% definition is meaningless in our growing day and age of logoism, where a symbol can now stand for a product line as much as text can," said Jennifer Easton, mural coordinator for the Cultural Affairs Department. "That's why advertising signs are coming to me. The loophole needs to be closed so that ads don't come in as art murals."

In December, the Cultural Affairs Commission approved the Jeep mural but recommended that Jeep take its plan to the Department of Building and Safety, which regulates most signs in the city.

After the department rejected the permit in March on the grounds the mural was a commercial sign and therefore violated the freeway ban, Patrick went ahead and painted it anyway.

"We consider it an art mural by the definition of the city of Los Angeles," said Ed Dato, public affairs manager for Patrick. "Others would say it's also an ad. That's the rub, and the only way to get it classified is to test it."

Patrick officials say the giant sign is just as much a work of art as, for example, the portraits of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra members painted by artist Kent Twitchell at the intersection of the Harbor Freeway and 6th Street.

In fact, Patrick likens the technique to Michelangelo's.

Using a vibrating electric pencil that leaves a trail of tiny holes in huge pieces of butcher paper--similar to a technique Michelangelo used when he painted the Sistine Chapel--the artists trace the contours of the image they will paint. The paper, held flush to a wall, is then patted with charcoal dust, which leaves a faint outline to guide the artists.

It takes two artists three weeks to paint a wall mural, said Miguel Aguilar, who has painted murals and billboards for 25 years, getting his start in small shops in Mexico.

The Department of Building and Safety didn't buy Patrick's art argument. Inspectors cited the property owner Saturday and ordered him to paint the mural over in 30 days or face six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Patrick officials have said they will work with the owner to appeal the decision. David Kim, general manager of the building where cut-rate clothing and furniture is sold, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, outdoor advertisers eager to display their own giant murals are awaiting the outcome of Patrick's challenge.

Gannett Outdoor of Southern California, Patrick's main competitor in Los Angeles, is keeping an eye on the brouhaha, in case opportunity opens up for other billboard companies.

"Let's just say we are in the curiosity stage right now," spokeswoman Bonnie Kingry said.

Van Wagner Outdoor in Studio City said it is interested in acquiring wall space. That is, if it could find a suitable building Patrick hasn't already laid claim to.

Patrick already leases the only six walls along the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways that the city says can be painted with advertisements. (They were grandfathered in under the sign law.)

To the west of the giant Jeep, 65-foot-tall volleyball player Karch Kiraly spikes a ball the size of a kiddie pool in the direction of commuters. To the east, the Marlboro Man, nearly twice his usual billboard size, hawks cigarettes. To the north, a monster-size hand pops out of wall along Broadway, offering passers-by a 90-foot-tall Miller Genuine Draft.

The company acquired these and other freeway-side murals in 1993, cornering the market by buying a company called Blue Wallscape that leased walls from property owners and sold them as ad space in the early 1980s--before the city overhauled its sign regulations. The building that bears the Jeep mural was not among these six.

The trend in gargantuan murals began during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when Nike Inc. plastered the city with larger-than-life murals of gold-medal hopefuls. Big murals have become even more popular in the past two years.

In Boston, Atlanta, Detroit and other cities, outdoor advertising companies, responding to demand from companies such as Nike, are working with local zoning boards to make room for the murals. Outdoor advertising companies say rising above the competition is one of the few ways left with which to get their messages across.

"The bottom line is impact," said Hal Carlson, managing director of San Francisco-based Outdoor Services, the largest buyer of outdoor advertising in a $3.1-billion national market. " A big dramatic wall painted the way you want stands out more than other forms of outdoor advertising."

But do the whopping murals really wow commuters?

"I like the one on the 10 [Freeway] with the big cat eyes," said Sally Michaud, a Malibu insurance executive. "But I can't remember what they were selling."

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