On September 19th, 2011, Los Angeles residents were treated to skywritten messages such as “Art is not a crime” and “End the mural moratorium”. They were a PR stunt and political action by Saber, one of LA’s most renowned graffiti artists. RJ Rushmore reports.
While LA was once known as the mural capital of the world, there has not been a single mural painted legally on private property since 2007. The absence of new murals in LA stems from a 2002 law meant to reduce outdoor advertising that even city officials say is awed. An unlikely group including graffiti artists, muralists and an LA city planner have come together to change the law and take back LA’s title.
While the process to “end the mural moratorium” has been underway since 2008, Saber and other local activists like mural-organiser Daniel Lahoda of JetSetGraffiti brought the issue to the attention of the greater LA public last year. Saber says that today muralists and property owners who allow murals can be harassed by police and that murals have been painted over against the wishes of property owners by anti-graffiti teams. Perhaps surprising to many, given Saber’s roots in graffiti, his argument for a new law rests on property rights. Saber says “art being illegal on private property is ridiculous.” Although he stays out of the lawmaking process, Saber’s skill for spreading his message to a lot of people has come in handy; moves like the skywriting stunt have managed to get everyday residents of LA interested in an obscure zoning issue.
Tanner Blackman, a city planner in LA, has been tasked with finding a way to allow for murals in LA without also opening the door for more outdoor advertising. In December, Blackman’s draft of new mural regulations was released. With new ordinance, old murals can be protected and property owners can get permits for new murals without much hassle, provided that the new murals are made by hand and intended to last at least five years. Blackman’s ordinance has been almost universally praised as a step towards making LA the mural capital of the world once again.
Of course the draft is not perfect. As it is written today, the ordinance only allows handmade visual art to qualify as a mural. That means screenprinting on paper is okay, but printed vinyl is out. Combine that with the rule that murals must be maintained for at least five years, and it becomes a practical impossibility for photographers like JR to have legal murals in LA. Additionally, murals where the art changes regularly would still be illegal, limiting opportunities for lesser-known artists who may have a hard time convincing property owners to allow them to paint a mural that will last for five years. These issues already exist today though, so even if the new ordinance will not fix everything that is broken with LA’s mural regulations, it will be a major improvement.
Thanks to a city council that has recognized that LA’s mural regulations are awed and vocal activists like Saber and Lahoda, it seems likely that LA will have new, legally painted murals before the end of the year.