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?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Always Bank­able Banksy

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