Supergraphic entrepreneur’s tactic in L.A. infuriates foes

Outdoor advertising entrepreneur Michael McNeilly stunned Los Angeles neighborhood activists earlier this year when he submitted documents asking a federal judge to let him keep enormous images on the sides of scores of buildings.

As he waged his legal battle against the city’s sign laws, the Beverly Hills businessman contended that inspectors should be barred from ordering his company to remove supergraphics -- vinyl images that can be larger than the biggest billboard -- from 118 sites where the firm had erected them.

A Times survey of those addresses, made between Jan. 10 and Feb. 10, found that fewer than a third actually had supergraphics. Sixty-six buildings had no images at all. And 11 had posters no more than a few feet high.

The discrepancy has infuriated foes of outdoor advertising, who have accused McNeilly of trying to pass off a series of unadorned buildings -- some taller than 25 stories -- as advertising space that already exists and therefore should be exempt from a recent city sign moratorium. McNeilly’s strategy, they suspect, is to secure permission for hundreds of supergraphics that would typically be rejected by building inspectors.

“He says that they’re on there -- it’s in plain English -- and they’re not,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “He’s trying to get a judge to go for an injunction on those addresses, and if he gets an injunction, he can put an ad up” at each location.


McNeilly’s gambit is one of several faced by city officials as they struggle to get a handle on unpermitted outdoor advertising.

Neighborhood groups, already upset over scores of new flashing digital billboards, are frustrated that the city has had so much difficulty policing supergraphics, which are often large enough to be seen miles away.

McNeilly’s firm, SkyTag, is one of four advertising companies that will appear in federal court Monday as part of an effort to stop the city from ordering them to remove multistory signs. If SkyTag is successful, McNeilly could secure permission for images on more than 450 building surfaces -- at locations that include North Hollywood, Koreatown, Westwood, Encino, Granada Hills, Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles.

SkyTag’s lawyers contend that a 2002 ban on supergraphics is unconstitutional because it allows the City Council to prohibit some signs while allowing others to go up on city buildings or in special zones, such as Hollywood. Although other companies have made similar arguments, McNeilly quickly established his firm as one of the industry’s most aggressive, placing his calling card, a multistory image of the Statue of Liberty, at more than a dozen locations without permits.

On Jan. 12, two weeks after the council imposed a new, temporary sign moratorium, McNeilly submitted paperwork saying he had erected supergraphics at 118 addresses that should be shielded from enforcement by a federal judge. Although he later reduced that number slightly, he continued to assert that each supergraphic had been installed before Dec. 26, the date the new moratorium took effect.

“As such, all should be protected” by a court order, he said.

City lawyers responded by visiting each site and submitting dozens of photographs to the judge showing buildings with no images on them.

“It would be wrong for the judge to now give Mr. McNeilly carte blanche to put up giant supergraphics long after the city’s moratorium against such signs went into effect,” said Chief Assistant City Atty. David Michaelson. “That is a lawful ordinance of the city of Los Angeles that no one has challenged in court.”

SkyTag attorney Gary Mobley submitted his own set of photographs to the court, saying building inspectors had failed to notice all of his client’s images, particularly the smaller posters. “They went to the wrong address or they ignored Mr. McNeilly’s statement that a number of these were smaller supergraphics,” he said.

Over four weeks, The Times conducted its own site-by-site visit, walking around buildings where McNeilly said his company had erected supergraphics.

Thirty-three locations, mostly in Hollywood and on the Westside, had supergraphics: non-commercial images such as McNeilly’s Statue of Liberty, commercial advertising or both.

Far more typical were the office buildings that had nothing at all. Ten workers at five of those addresses told The Times that they had never seen a supergraphic on the outside of their workplace.

“I’ve been here since 1993, and I know I would have seen it if it had one,” said Ken Sweet, who manages facilities for Morris, Polich and Purdy LLC, a law firm that occupies the 23rd and 24th floor of 1055 W. 7th St.

Office workers at 360 E. 2nd St. gave similar reports. “There would have been a lot of noise if we had one,” said Linda Aparicio, who handles communications for the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System.

After The Times completed its survey, McNeilly filed another statement with the court, saying that only 33 buildings had full-size supergraphics and the remainder had “smaller” supergraphics. Those images look more like posters, in some cases measuring less than 5 feet by 5 feet.

In supplemental court documents, McNeilly said he did not have time to submit photographs for every supergraphic. “Of course, it is possible that one or more of these signs was removed without SkyTag’s knowledge since SkyTag’s photos were taken, but to my knowledge all of these locations still have the same signs in place,” he said.

Hathaway, the anti-billboard activist, disputed that point, saying that true supergraphics are placed on a sticky vinyl surface and because of their large size, typically require scaffolding or a crane to remove. If McNeilly put up only a poster, a judge should not allow him to replace it with a supergraphic, he said.

A resident of Venice, Hathaway carried out his own survey on the Westside, finding that four out of nine locations in McNeilly’s legal declaration lacked images. A fifth had a Statue of Liberty poster.

The Westside is where McNeilly first made his mark on the city’s political landscape. He secured a lucrative legal settlement from City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and the city of Los Angeles for a building at 10921 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, near the 405 Freeway overlooking one of the busiest intersections in the region. The 2003 agreement was the product of a lawsuit over the 12-story medical building, where McNeilly had erected an image of a firefighter and a Statue of Liberty.

McNeilly questioned whether building inspectors were trying to quash patriotic images in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After the settlement was reached, the patriotic images were replaced by movie ads for features such as the currently running “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”

McNeilly confirmed in an interview earlier this year that he makes money off that building’s images, but he refused to disclose the amount. He and others have said that a single multistory supergraphic can generate up to $100,000 a month in advertising revenue. By the first of this year, McNeilly had a new supergraphic -- another Statue of Liberty -- on the building’s opposite side.

As he wages his current legal battle, McNeilly continues to use patriotism as part of his argument, accusing building inspectors of trying to take down “an iconic symbol of freedom” from the exteriors of three buildings.

“The tear in the eye of Liberty is intended to symbolize the sacrifices made by our soldiers, first responders and veterans protecting our security, rights and freedoms,” McNeilly said in court documents. “As a result, an order compelling removal of this sign has significant meaning, and is very upsetting to me personally.”