The Battle for LA’s Murals

Los Angeles has long been known as the street mural capital of the world. But in the past few years the city has painted over more than 300 murals, according to the Los Angeles Times, enforcing a decade-old ordinance that makes it a crime to create murals on most private properties. “The mural capital of the world is no more,” street artist Saber told the Times. “They buff beautiful pieces, harass property owners and threaten us like we are in street gangs.”

Some of the problems started in 1986, when the city was looking for a way to alleviate the growing scourge of billboard blight. The city was being blanketed with unsightly commercial advertising, so the Los Angeles City Council adopted a code to reduce commercial billboards. The new restrictions exempted artwork. Advertisers responded by suing the city, arguing that they had the same right of free speech as the muralists. So in 2002 the Council “solved” the matter by amending the code to include works of art. “The law left many murals technically illegal,” wrote the Times in an Oct. 29 editorial, “no matter how talented the artist or how willing the owner of the wall or how inoffensive the subject matter.”

Since then, murals that were already in existence have come under increasing threat from two sides: from graffiti “artists” who mark their territory by defacing murals, and from a city that seems determined to find any pretext to paint over them. This is the subject of Behind the Wall: The Battle for LA’s Murals (above), a six-minute documentary by students in the Film and TV Production MFA program at the University of Southern California. It was directed by Oliver Riley-Smith, shot by Qianbaihui Yang, and produced and edited by Gavin Garrison.

Without addressing the issue head-on, the film makes some progress toward illuminating the distinction between street art and vandalism. Muralists like Ernesto De La Loza, who is featured in the film, receive permission from property owners and then spend months creating their art. Later, someone comes along with a can of spray paint and tags it. Should the muralist and the graffiti artist have equal cultural status?

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