The Convoluted Path to Ending Los Angeles's Mural Ban

March 22, 2012
How the city is working with artists to revise its rules about murals, art and advertising.

Once regarded as the mural capital of the world, Los Angeles in recent years has lost a good deal of its street art cred. Decades of loose regulation on signs and murals led to some creative law-skirting by outdoor advertising firms, bringing about a string of lawsuits and rule changes – and more lawsuits and more rule changes. The eventual result was an all-out moratorium on new murals.

City officials are now trying to welcome mural artists back with a proposed new ordinance. But this regulation battle still has to deal with the particularly pesky monkey on its back.

At its core, it all boils down to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

To promote the DVD release of the 2011 film, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment commissioned artist Anthony Lister last December to paint a mural based on the film on a high-profile wall along Melrose Avenue, one of L.A.'s busiest shopping areas. The wall has become well known as a canvas for a variety of prominent street artists to paint murals, each running only temporarily, then being replaced with the work of another artist. The works are sanctioned by the owners of the building, the De La Barracuda Boxing Club. To help pay for these works, the owners periodically allow commercial works such as the Planet of the Apes mural to effectively rent the wall space. The line that this piece treads between art and advertising is the key confusion in L.A.'s internal battle with murals.

This wall was a recurring point of contention at a recent community meeting about the proposed mural ordinance. A panel including artists Shepard Fairey and Saber kicked things off by delving into their issues with codifying art and why the distinction between commercial and artistic expression is particularly sensitive in this case – mainly because the two can be co-dependent. Fairey argues that unless the building owner can rent the wall for pieces like the Planet of the Apes ad, non-commercial art may not be able to exist there.

"It's folded into his program. It's subsidizing his ability to support artists. So to prevent him from being able to do that would actually harm the art community," Fairey said.

Saber agreed: "It's his damn building. He should be able to do what the hell he wants with it."