07/20/2010 12:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Is it Art? The Age-Old Question in a Crazy New Context

So, it turns out that the City of Los Angeles has been buffing (or painting over) hundreds of murals since 2007 because, through a mind-bending poster case for the law of unintended consequences, fine art murals have been made indistinguishable from billboards advertising everything from vodka to TV shows.

I first heard about this bizarre conundrum from Liz Gordon of the fun and dynamic The Loft at Liz's, a gallery on La Brea Avenue. She was excited that famed L.A. muralist Mear One would soon be starting work on one of her gallery's exterior surfaces, but she worried it might get buffed.

"Why?" I said.

"Because it won't be permitted," she said.

"Why do you need a permit if it's on your property?"

"Exactly," she said. "But if someone complains about it, the City could buff it or fine me."

"But, why?" I asked again. Obviously I'm dense.

It turns out that the City's mural-buffing campaign is an outgrowth of an issue I've been following with interest for quite some time: It seemed to me and a lot of other people that Los Angeles was getting uglier by the day. Everywhere you looked there they were -- new unpermitted billboards and supergraphics (those giant ads that wrap around entire buildings). In an effort to stop these obnoxious intrusions and blight on the cityscape, a 2002 ordinance banning the installation of new billboards was enacted.


Under that ordinance, fine art murals unintentionally ended up in the same category broadly defined as "signs." In the meantime, billboards continued to proliferate like ghastly cardboard clowns until along came City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. He resolved to put some teeth into the ordinance, aggressively pursued renegade companies; jail time and stiff penalties ensued. Yo, Carmen! But in order to avoid the appearance of preferential treatment and to follow the letter of the law, his office had no choice but to pursue illegal murals as well. 2010-07-16-mear3smaller.jpg

Now, I think most people can tell the difference between a fine art mural and an ad for the new Apple iPhone. But what of graffiti? When is it considered art? Ask ten people and you'll get ten different answers. And what if a fine art mural were to include a corporate logo? Therein lies the rub (or in this case, the buff). Yes, it seems insane -- especially since Los Angeles was once considered mural capital of the world! -- but that pesky first amendment issue keeps crashing the party. Once you start regulating content, out come the lawyers, and rightly so.

But content is what really got the ball rolling on the very active march by all concerned parties to resolve the issue. This month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger found out that an 8 and a half year old giant and illegal mural of the American flag on Interstate 680 had been buffed by his own California Department of Transportation -- get this -- just two days before the 4th of July; he went ballistic. You know, the way he always did it in the movies. He called it "unconscionable." When content is patriotic, it is automatically considered art.

In any case, out of the ashes of absurdity comes what seems like the near final of many City Council meetings to address the issue, which I attended on July 13th. And I am happy to report that with the support of Councilmembers Tom Labonge, Ed Reyes, Paul Krekorian and others, along with the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, Department of Building and Safety, the City Attorney's office and other agencies, everyone seems to be in agreement that a process establishing the legality of installation of fine art murals on private property must be implemented by September 2010. A moratorium on buffing until then is still being debated. Justice often moves at a slow pace.

2010-07-16-mear1small.jpg Meanwhile, back to the mural at hand. Mear One grew up in the area around The Loft at Liz's and used to paint murals all over the city when it was legal. His new mural is meant to honor the art community whose 40 some galleries and museums participate in the quarterly Miracle Mile Artwalk. 2010-07-16-mear2small.jpg

So, cruise by the artist's new mural in the alley behind The Loft at Liz's before something happens to it. Trust me, it'll be art.


(depicting Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, considered by many to be the father of Art Nouveau)


Mear One is affiliated with L.A. Art Machine, an arts organization, which pioneered Vox Humana, a program of carefully selected live art happenings in the U.S. and abroad by legendary Los Angeles street artists. Vox Humana is curated by Bryson Strauss.