Mural Capital of the World: A Paradise Lost? Or Can LA Bring it Back
One of LA’s most famous muralists, Kent Twitchell, remembers the 1960s and 70s fondly.
It was a time when an artistic paradise bloomed in Los Angeles.
“We turned it into the Mural Capital of the World,” says Twitchell, recalling an LA that left murals unregulated, and when graffiti was of no real concern.
Decades later, most public murals, even his, are of a bygone era, either removed, defaced beyond recognition or neglected to the point of complete destruction.
“You get kind of toughened by reality,” Twitchell admits.
Nine years after the LA City Council outlawed private murals — a move made to avoid costly lawsuits by advertising agencies — it’s hoping to bring back that paradise of yesteryear.
In late October, the city council ordered a draft of a new law to permit public murals. It is a long-awaited ordinance some hail as a path to reclaiming the mural capital moniker. Others brush it off as a sure-to-be failure at sparking a renaissance.
“My idealism has been corrected,” said Twitchell. “I no longer believe culture is getting better and better.
“I think it’s pretty clear it isn’t. And so one has to adjust.”
Twitchell’s sticking to mostly interior murals now after seeing some of his most iconic street work removed or destroyed, from his original “Steve McQueen Monument” (painted over by workers) to “Seventh Street Altarpiece” (covered over almost entirely by graffiti artists).
“We were certain idealists in the late 60s and 70s, and we never thought the world would deteriorate to that level,” he said. “We’d put the paint on a scaffold and go to lunch and nobody touched it. It just wasn’t the way people thought.”
Twitchell is quick to point out he does not blame the city for its decision.
As graffiti increased in intensity throughout the 80s, so did the city’s efforts to fairly categorize street art. In 1986, the city tried to curb the onslaught of billboards, adopting a sign code that exempted murals.
“Prior to 1986, there was no mention of murals in the Los Angeles municipal code, and that’s kind of the favorable position to be in because if it’s not mentioned, not defined, not regulated, then it’s anything goes” said city planner Tanner Blackman. “So that’s how we sort of became the Mural Capital of the World.”
In 1986, the city finally defined murals as “mural signs,” but exempted them from the new regulations.
But this wouldn’t last for long. After nearly two decades of lawsuits from advertising companies that argued they deserved the same rights as muralists, the city came down hard in 2002.
“In order to be constitutional, we kinda had to be equally unfair to everyone and throw outdoor advertising and mural signs under the same general ban,” Blackman said.
The city has struggled to truly define public art ever since.
Among the regulations, for example, a work must contain less than 3 percent text to be in the boundaries of public art and not cross into the domain of advertising.
“But styles have changed and now we have MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) celebrating street art, and that 3 percent text limitation sort of bans text-based art and other styles,” Blackman said.
The city has, for some time, tried to change its system, but the process has been slow, partly because of continuing lawsuits. Successfully litigating against World Wide Rush, an outdoor advertising company, opened the door last year. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city’s right to ban off-site, supergraphic, and freeway-facing ad signs.
With the completion of that lawsuit, the city decided it could move forward with approving new “sign districts,” which is one way it figures it can open up certain territories to mural signs.
The Wilshire-Grand redevelopment project was the first new “sign district” approved since 2010.
It’s one approach, said Blackman. Another is to allow “administrative permits” to muralists as long as their work meets a number of regulations. This is the draft ordinance the city is currently exploring, based on a similar structure in Portland.
The regulations have not been met with wide praise. They include prohibiting sponsorship and advertisements or corporate branding, restricting the murals to being paint-based, and instituting a mandatory five-year time limit.
“The city has no say in content and that’s really the only way it could work,” said Blackman. “And I think once artists hear that, they’ll be excited for this idea."
In the meantime, artists continue to find ways to show their craft, even if it’s not technically legal.
Some choose to break the law, as there are hundreds of illegal art murals, along with at least 4,000 illegal billboards.
Others find ways around the mural ban, like Roberto Del Hoyo and David Russell, who founded the Mobile Mural Lab. All the materials they need are kept within their truck, which serves as the canvas.
“The Mobile Mural Lab really provides a space, specifically, but not limited to, the youth to really express themselves visually in hope to find their visual voice,” said Del Hoyo.
“The public realm is key, because I think that’s one thing that the city lacks is open space for people to access,” added Russell.
While Twitchell laments the youth culture that embraces graffiti, Russell and Del Hoyo believe they can help change that culture.
“Our hope is that we can redirect that energy into more educational base workshops and teach painting techniques, and then we can serves as a graffiti abatement program as well,” Del Hoyo said.
Whether graffiti is art, or not, it is a global phenomena, says Del Hoyo — “an outburst of artistic expression.”
“Artists choose other cities to work in and they have to go outside of LA County to do the work that they love,” said Del Hoyo. “And loving where I live, this is what we have proposed for the city of Los Angeles. This other space that’s free of the red tape and bureaucracy that’s happening within the city.”
The duo is part of the planning team that is working with Blackman’s planning department to write the new ordinance. So is Twitchell.
Because of graffiti, Twitchell said he’d only consider producing another public street mural if it were adopted by a group such as the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which is already looking to restore the 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals.
Isabel Rojas-Williams, the executive director of the Mural Conservancy, expects it to take another three months for the City Council to review the ordinance.
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