From the aging homages to Chicano history on the Eastside to Shepard Fairey’s towering “Peace Goddess” watching over downtown, Los Angeles has earned a reputation as the street mural capital of the world.
But for nearly a decade, much of this artwork has been done illicitly.
City ordinances make it illegal to create murals on the vast majority of private properties. Officials estimate that more than 300 murals have been painted over in the last several years, a fact that has frustrated artists as well as property owners who commission the murals.
“The mural capital of the world is no more,” said the artist Saber, who had a mural covered up by a city-contracted graffiti work crew earlier this year. “They buff beautiful pieces, harass property owners and threaten us like we are in street gangs.”
Responding to protests of artists like Saber as well as some celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Travis Barker, the Los Angeles City Council for the first time agreed this month to draft a new ordinance that would allow some murals.
Until now, city laws have equated murals with commercial signs, the legacy of lawsuits brought by billboard companies trying to preserve their right to place ads on businesses’ walls. The city views any mural on private property as commercial signage even if it’s purely artistic in nature.
City officials said they need to make a better distinction between art, which should be protected under the 1st Amendment, and commerce, which should be covered by the sign ordinance.
“This city has been astounding in international circles when it comes to how murals depict our history, depict our diversity, how we celebrate our music, our art, our food, our traditions,” said Councilman Ed Reyes. “And every neighborhood has a different way of interpreting their environment and the murals have an amazing way of capturing that.”
Over the years, some of Los Angeles’ most famous murals on public and private property have been destroyed.
Frank Romero, a noted muralist and pioneering Chicano painter, sued Caltrans for painting over a mural he created along the Hollywood Freeway in conjunction with the 1984 Summer Olympics. In 2008, muralist Kent Twitchell won a $1.1-million settlement against the U.S. government and others for painting over his portrait of fellow artist Ed Ruscha on a federally owned building in downtown Los Angeles.
This year, Valley Village resident Barbara Black painted over a 75-foot mural she commissioned from young artists after she was fined $360 by the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department and threatened with an additional $1,925 fine if it was not removed promptly.
Actress Julie Newmar said a mural she commissioned from Saber and other well-known street artists was removed from a building she owns on Fairfax Avenue without notice in April by overzealous graffiti-removal crews.
“People came from all over to photograph it,” she said, adding that she and the artists eventually pressured the company to restore the mural. “I was furious when city contractors broke onto the fenced property in April to buff over the beautiful mural. Shame on the city for allowing this kind of thing.”
For Saber, the temporary removal of his mural was a turning point. He blasted city leaders on Twitter, gathered more than 6,500 signatures on a petition to legalize murals and garnered celebrity support. He even took his fight to the skies over City Hall, recently hiring skywriters to leave a smoke trail of words demanding an end to the mural moratorium. “Art is not a crime,” one message read.
Saber said many artists are angry at law enforcement’s heavy-handed tactics in seeking to criminalize street art. Some artists have been detained, harassed and threatened with arrest, he said.
Some artists are taking their protest to the walls. One Traction Avenue mural titled “Heartship” shows an artist crouched in a fetal position facing a sea monster.
For years, Los Angeles was one of the world’s best street mural cities, with works such as Judith Baca’s “Great Wall of Los Angeles” painted in the late 1970s in Valley Glen and “America Tropical” by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted on Olvera Street in 1932.
There are more than 1,600 documented murals across the city, with 507 on private property — and thousands more that aren’t on the books, city planner Tanner Blackman said.
Los Angeles’ love affair with its murals reach its zenith in 1986, when the city issued a blanket exemption permitting outdoor murals.
The law allowed muralists to flourish, but it also prompted lawsuits by the outdoor advertising industry, Blackman said. The lawsuit argued that if private businesses are allowed to commission murals without regulations, billboard companies should have the same right. In 2002, the city eliminated the distinction between signs and public art, effectively making most murals on private property illegal.
Now, murals are only legal on public property if they are commissioned by the state, a school district or city or on private property in certain zones.
City officials said it’s unclear whether historic murals are in violation.
Some City Council members want to tweak the rules to grandfather in many of the best-known murals of Los Angeles and create a way for more recent murals to be legalized. They may also put an approval process in place to sign off on murals.
“We want to define murals as something other than signs and create a process for permitting murals,” Councilman Bill Rosendahl said. “There is a difference between a sign and a mural. One is marketing and one is art.”
The current uncertainty is forcing some artists to choose whether to devote time and money into murals that might get whitewashed.
Earlier this month, artist Patrick H. Johnson spent an afternoon transforming a wall in South Los Angeles. His 160-square-foot mural “Elixir” shows the outline of a black woman with an Afro and big hoop earrings in front of a sunset of deep oranges and reds. The universe explodes from her forehead, referring to third eye philosophy.
“It was so frustrating because everybody kept telling me ... ‘You’re not going to be able to get this done,’ ” Johnson said.
He finally came to a gentleman’s agreement with the owner of the Liquor Bank, which offered a large wall on the side of the store on condition that Johnson take down the mural if it became a problem.
For Johnson, the risk is worth it.
“There is an image in my mind that wants to free itself to show what love and beauty is,” Johnson said.
Times staff writer Ari Bloomekatz contributed to this report.