Dispatch From Muraltown: Ban Remains In Place.
(City Hall, El Lay. July 12, 2012) I marvel at the City of Los Angeles’ palatial council chamber. Magnificent marble columns whose understated capitals allow eyes to wander across murals painted twenty feet overhead on vaulted alcoves. Up there above my head, Calliope stands like a sprig of mistletoe in Winter. I toss my speaking notes and go with poetry, a la brava.
The City of Los Angeles Planning Commission meets today to take public comment, mine included, on a final draft recommendation to the City Council on a mural ordinance that seeks to separate commercial signage from original art murals. The Commission ultimately doesn’t decide, postponing final consideration until the Fall.
What dire offense from art loving causes spring. The people in the back of the chambers come and go talking of Michelangelo’s descendants-in-art filling half the chamber. The other half fills with anti-Walmart activists. We’re all here to grind our axes.
The muralist community arrives with disappointment, anger, resentment toward the process and elements proposed. Artists and groups worked closely with the Commission in crafting an earlier proposal that Commission bureaucrats have morphed into today’s mishmash of ill-understood provisions and new, bad ideas.
|Margaret Garcia, Yami Duarte
The intent is marvelous. A court banned all signs and murals a few years ago. Today’s draft rules seek to open the door to profusions of hand painted original "fine art murals"; create a definitive registry of murals past and going forward; impose a modest tax on artists who go through the permitting process; guarantee new mural approvals.Click for link to report version.
In a nod to new materials and technologies, and since the entire widely-disregarded ban on murals citywide resulted from an advertiser lawsuit, the proposed mural ordinance makes room for digital commercial signage as temporary murals. Here the medium is the message: Plastics. The proposal aims to codify things like wrapping tall buildings in 1000 square foot sheets of vinyl, as much as 100 feet high—eight-story buildings.
Vinyl is toxic and non-biodegradable, several artists aver. A vinyl sign releases lethal compounds as it degrades in some landfill. After an ordained lifespan wrapped around some tall building, that digital sign will ooze carcinogens into the environment casí forever. Speakers suggest the ordinance could specify hand painted on biodegradable substrates, temporary murals needn't go vinyl.
One artist points out the irony in the City’s recent ban of plastic grocery bags. The audience laughs and the Commissioners look abashed. Woo laughs, likely happy he won’t be dealing with that political hot potato. Today marks the appointee's final meeting.
The most potent message on vinyl comes from Margaret Garcia who observes that recent vinyl sign orders went to Germany for printing. In an election year the potent message will be headline grabbers:
Sacramento Bee: Arts Commission Sends Los Angeles Jobs Overseas.
Los Angeles Times: New Mural Regulation Offshores Region Jobs.
LA Weekly: Villaraigosa Promotes Outsourcing Local Jobs to Foreign Companies.
Some artists understand the proposal dictates mural artists must work for free. The executive summary states an Original Art Mural “not be for compensation.”
I trust the “no compensation” fear results from misreading the proposal. The building owner is the one enjoined from compensation, not the artist, though the language reads ambiguously enough to generate a lawsuit. Section 6 numbered paragraph 5 tells readers “The applicant shall certify in the registration application that no compensation for the display of the mural or the right to place the mural on the property will be given to or received by the property owner or leaseholder.”
That’s an inspired tactic to prevent advertisers from hanging a billboard and calling it a mural. Under the proposed ruling a huge vinyl ad displaying only a logo would be a mural, but the wall owner cannot receive payment for the space.
Payment rules, the changes recommended in the Staff report, intricacies and loopholes, access and application details will be the subject of a legal forum sponsored by Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles,
Thursday July 19 at Highland Park's Avenue 50 Studio.
My one minute at the rostrum begins with Keats’ still unravished bride holding out her arm in mid-gesture, forever. It's a moment like today's decision. Keats in another poem tells the commissioners a thing of beauty is a joy forever, unless prohibited from expression because the wall is not part of a 5-unit building.
Commissioners worked like hell to avoid regulating expression and respect art. The Commissioners probably assume they do, respect art. They clearly enjoy regulating it, having kicked around a mural regulation for six years now. Ni modo. They’ve defined “mural” approximately respectfully.
I close my shaky impromptu evoking Shelly’s Ozymandias. I figure the Commissioners know this one, too. "BEHOLD", I paraphrase, "all that you can see." Do you know why there’s only a few birds and a vast empty desert and that single lonely statue? This is what comes of regulating art. I exercise poetic license and allege Ozymandias prohibited people from painting their own houses.
The Chair asks a long question. My bad hearing catches the essence, to wit, “what’s your point, what part of the proposed regulation do you oppose?” I clarify, I object that murals are permitted only on residences with five or more units. “It’s a matter of individual freedom,” I conclude. I am three seconds overtime. I shut up and return to my camera.
Michael Woo’s farewell speech flows along a six or seven point legal brief. He’s a practiced speaker but delivers with an attorney’s punch. Everyone else tends toward folksy and laid back officialese. Evidently, Woo’s been on the wrong end of otherwise-unanimous votes and his point five argues there’s too much unanimity in this group. Youse guys need to dig into the issues more passionately. The next point draws applause when Woo signposts it as the last one.
When he concludes and Woo’s colleagues get to say good-bye for the Record, most bite their tongue and the agenda moves on.
Woo makes sensible arguments about city-making. But he needs to lighten up big time. Persuasion grows out of finding what works for the ears right there, what Aristotle's translators call the “available means of persuasion for a given audience.”
This audience entertains thoughts of tarring and feathering but keeps a civil tongue standing at the lectern. Cameras capture the backs of speakers’ heads. An honor roll of artists whose walls make LA the mural capital of the world comes to the microphone. The Commissioners appear interested in the commentary. They listen to the artists' one-minutes, factoring in how these speeches help the Commissioners regulate art.
The Planning Commission delays final consideration to a future date, pending changes recommended by Staff, not the day's public comments. If the artist's messages got through, artist-endorsed changes will appear in the next final draft. For now, Los Angeles’ mural painters will cling to hopes like vinyl clings to money the Commissioners will let artists paint their own homes, better protect the environment, keep jobs at home.