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Mural or Graffiti? City Draws Line

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles is often called the mural capital of the world -- and no place is this truer than on the streets of Boyle Heights, where hundreds of walls at pharmacies, general stores, guitar shops and even churches have been transformed into urban artwork.

The murals depict Mexican American history, advertise businesses and take the form of abstract art at the hands of graffiti taggers.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 31, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 31, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Mural regulations -- An article in the Aug. 24 Section A about the controversy over graffiti-style murals in Los Angeles said that when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was a member of the City Council, he began the pilot program to enforce a city ordinance that requires murals abutting sidewalks or other city property to have a permit. The city already had begun enforcing the ordinance as a result of citizen complaints. The pilot program was designed to bring murals into compliance with city codes without having to remove them entirely. The article also said the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department would find artists to create new murals. That responsibility rests with the Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization.

But now some residents complain that they cannot tell some of the murals from the illegal graffiti that have long plagued the area. So the city is cracking down.

Using a little-known ordinance that allows the city to regulate murals that abut public property -- including sidewalks -- officials have notified some property owners that they must either modify or remove their murals.

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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa began the pilot program to enforce the ordinance while he was still a councilman representing the Eastside. But the effort, which targets murals that lack city permits, has divided residents, reflecting a divergence in views about graffiti and art that is playing out in cities across the nation.

Though some consider the graffiti look a legitimate -- even hip -- form of art, others, including city leaders and police, remain convinced it is a symbol of blight and crime. The debate has also roiled New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently tried to revoke a block party permit for fashion designer Marc Ecko featuring taggers spray-painting graffiti on replicas of subway car panels. Ecko insists tagging is art, but Bloomberg argued the party would encourage vandalism. A judge this week sided with Ecko, and the party occurred Wednesday.

In Boyle Heights, inspectors arrived at Joe Escobedo’s Rosemead Radiator Shop on Wabash Avenue a few weeks ago to tell him to remove the spray-painted mural he had commissioned for the west-facing brick wall of his business.

A tagger who called himself Keo had approached him about five years ago saying, “ ‘You got a nice wall there. Want a mural?’ ” Escobedo recalled.

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“I told him, ‘Do something nice, something I’m going to like,’ ” Escobedo said Wednesday, his face and work clothes a little oil-stained. “You’ve got to get close to figure it out, but it does have something to do with radiators.”

The mural shows the name of the shop in bold graffiti-like letters next to a pair of cartoonish radiators. Keo received $300 for the job and periodically returns to touch up the mural when taggers or gang members vandalize it, Escobedo said.

But the city recently issued an order saying Escobedo must whitewash the wall and that a nonprofit art group would come to paint a new mural for him.

The inspector “said they considered [the mural] graffiti,” Escobedo said. “That’s graffiti right there,” he said, pointing across the street to a white wall sliced by crude gang tagging.

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Under the city program, the Cultural Affairs Department will find artists to create new murals and set up a system to maintain the artwork. Joseph Montalvo, a graffiti muralist participating in the program, says he supports the idea of engaging young taggers. But he worries that the city will put limits on what artists can and cannot do.

“For the last 15 years, the relationship between the store owner and the writer [muralist] has been there and there hasn’t been a need for government participation,” said Montalvo, 35, also known as Nuke. “What I’m afraid is they may want to suppress or oppress any content that in their eyes they think is inappropriate.”

One of the murals the city has targeted for removal or modification was a spray-painted piece created by Montalvo in 2001. The mural, on a wall of the crumbling Mazatlan theater on Eastern Avenue in El Sereno, depicts Charlie Chaplin and Mexican comedic icon Cantinflas with the phrase “Comin’ to da Barrio.”

He said he painted it with the theater owner’s permission and with help from female graffiti tagger Mellow.

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Like other graffiti muralists, Montalvo said he did illegal tagging as a teenager. But as he grew older, he said, he started going to business owners asking if he could practice his mural art on their walls by creating signage in the graffiti style.

Montalvo moved on to making murals with city and nonprofit funding, such as “Undiscovered America” on 4th Street in downtown, a large spray-painted mural he helped create with other graffiti writers in 1992.

He takes pride in his work, and regularly touches up his murals when they are hit by gang graffiti. He said he once hunted down a group of taggers who defaced “Undiscovered America” and demanded they pay for paint to fix it after the Cultural Affairs Department had told him budgets were too tight to clean up the mural.

“If you have any integrity for your mural, for what you did, you have do to what’s necessary, and I had to do that.”

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Pat Gomez, a public art manager for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, said the goal is not to censor artists but to give the community a greater voice in determining what kind of art is displayed on city streets.

“It really was a community concern that has been voiced very strongly about these murals not going through the process,” she said, adding that the city government is “responding to a community.”

The genre of mural art, because of its public nature, has never been far from controversy. Los Angeles is no exception. More than 70 years after it was painted, “America Tropical,” a 1932 mural at Olvera Street by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros -- one of few the artist painted in the U.S. -- is not visible to the public. Whitewashed soon after its unveiling because of its political content, it’s now hidden behind a wooden structure, undergoing a conservation effort that has dragged on for nearly two decades.

Murals began popping up across Los Angeles in large numbers in the early 1960s and soon became a worldwide symbol of the city’s emerging multicultural population. Many of the most famous in L.A. celebrate Mexican American culture, including the multi-paneled “Chicano Time Trip” in Lincoln Heights and “Bridges of East L.A.” in Boyle Heights.

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But city officials acknowledge that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of murals lack approval from the Cultural Affairs Commission -- a permit required for all murals facing public streets, sidewalks and alleys.

Authorities estimate there are more than 2,500 murals in the city but the actual number may be much higher if unregistered works on the sides of small businesses are included.

Graffiti-inspired murals began emerging in the early 1990s, as taggers who for years defaced public and private property began seeking legitimacy. Some merchants favor these types of murals because they discourage gangs from hitting their buildings with unwanted tagging.

The growing popularity of the murals has met with concern from some residents and city officials.

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Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, at an event last Tuesday touting the success of an anti-graffiti video surveillance campaign near downtown, made his feeling about tagging clear: “This is not art. It’s desecration,” Bratton said.

Boyle Heights resident Armando Herman said he drives around his neighborhood and is upset by what he sees. He views the graffiti-style murals as a blight.

“The whole idea is to get these taggers to understand that there’s nothing wrong with the way they want to tag their art,” said Herman, 38, a special education teacher’s aide. “But it has to be done in the most appropriate way so that it doesn’t interfere with other people.”

David Keim, chief of the city’s Building and Safety Code Enforcement Bureau, said that according to city rules, no property owner can have any kind of graffiti on walls visible to the public. Keim said some property owners allow graffiti to remain on their walls out of fear of retribution from taggers if they paint it over.

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City ordinances do not differentiate between gang tagging and graffiti murals.

“What is a graffiti mural? I’ve never heard of that,” Keim said.

Jesse Hernandez, 60, sees a very definite difference. Hernandez owns property in Boyle Heights and has commissioned graffiti-style murals on his walls. The blank walls of the converted clothing factory where he and his wife live had attracted gang graffiti for years.

Then, a local graffiti muralist crew approached him and offered to paint a mural on his wall for no cost. The muralists have updated the wall periodically, never without first requesting permission, Hernandez said. The gang graffiti dropped off considerably.

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But under the pilot program, the city is telling him the mural must be changed. City officials gave him three options: Whitewash the walls, modify the mural as approved by the Cultural Affairs Commission, or allow a nonprofit group, the Center for the Arts, to create a new mural.

Hernandez said he opted for a modified mural, but did so grudgingly. He’s still not sure what city inspectors object to or how they plan to fix it.

“They say it’s graffiti; that’s not graffiti,” Hernandez said. He held up an old photograph showing the blank mural wall scrawled with gang tags.

“I told them,” he said, “ ‘You’d prefer this?’ ”

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