Mural Momentum in the Central City

“Supermodel,” a mural commissioned by Mark Foster of the indie-pop band Foster the People, was whitewashed in July after failing to secure approvals from the city. Despite the city approval of a heralded mural ordinance last year, nearly as many works in Downtown have been whitewashed as have been painted.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On Aug. 1, a mix of street art and music fans were in an uproar when a mural involving the band Foster the People was whitewashed from the south-facing side of the Santa Fe Lofts in the Historic Core. Although the work, dubbed “Supermodel,” appeared on the cover of the band’s latest album and had been “saved” by Mayor Eric Garcetti three weeks before, an agreement between city officials, the band and the building owner resulted in it being covered.

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The fracas shined a light on a slowly shifting public art situation. Although the City Council last October approved an ordinance that allows murals to go up on private property with the owner’s approval, in Downtown more artworks have been whitewashed than have been approved.

“Peace and Justice,” a mural on Central Avenue and Sixth Street painted by Shepard Fairey and Kelly Graval (better known as Risk), was covered in the spring. An untitled piece at Seventh and Mateo streets by David Choe and Aryz was painted over in May. “Urban Bigfoot,” Ron English’s colorful rendition of a Yeti-like creature, was whitewashed in July despite being billed as L.A.’s first legal mural. 

The tide may finally be shifting as more works make their way through the approval pipeline. A city-approved depiction of a faux Skid Row “City Limit” sign and an adjacent map of the community has appeared on a wall on San Julian Street. Last week, a mural of flying swans was completed on a wall at South Park’s Flower Street Lofts at 12th and Flower streets. Other works are up for city approval.

Still, some say the slow progress is the result of a confusing administrative process. The city Department of Cultural Affairs’ applications for new and “vintage” (painted before the ordinance was passed) murals require basic information and signatures from the building owner and applicant. But other factors can trigger additional permit requirements from entities including City Planning, Building and Safety, the L.A. Fire Department and Public Works. 

Not securing those additional permits is partly why “Supermodel” was covered. 

The applicant, Daniel Lahoda of the mural initiative group L.A. Freewalls, maintains that he received the go-ahead for the artwork from the local City Council office and the city Department of Cultural Affairs. The Santa Fe Lofts at 121 E. Sixth St., however, is a historic building, and thus the work required the signature of the city Office of Historic Resources. That was never secured, and other factors also posed a problem, according to Felicia Filer, director of the public art division at Cultural Affairs. 

“There were multiple issues, including incomplete paperwork, no approvals from the Office of Historic Resources, the height of the mural was a problem, and it was a commercial image,” said Filer. “The mural was the cover image of Foster the People’s album. The ordinance only protects unique works of non-commercial art.”

Attention to Detail

Lahoda has made a business of brokering deals between building owners and high-profile artists, particularly in Downtown, and was part of the group that helped develop the mural ordinance. He claims that he had fewer issues with murals before the law passed. 

“I’m a proponent of strong public policy, but I don’t think the city is putting forward a good-faith effort to protect works when administering the ordinance,” he said.

He pointed to Choe and Aryz’s untitled piece at La Reyna restaurant at Seventh and Mateo streets. In that case, the city Department of Building and Safety issued a non-compliance notice to the building owner without clarifying that the mural could be allowed via the grandfathering process. 

But other murals that Lahoda arranged, including “Supermodel,” “Peace & Justice” and “Urban Bigfoot,” were not registered properly, according to the city. With English’s “Urban Bigfoot” at Imperial and Jesse streets, for instance, the approval signature came from a building tenant, not the owner. The city later received a call from the owner saying the work had not been authorized, Filer said. 

Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which also helped shape the ordinance, sees it as a situation in which artists and fixers need to be more aware if they want to create a legacy of art in the city.

The city and community leaders should hold meetings to clarify rules and encourage local artists and building owners, she said. She also emphasized that the registration process is simple: Pay the $60 fee, secure the paperwork, and the art stays. 

“By not complying with the ordinance’s requirements, people are going against the spirit of the law we all helped create,” Rojas-Williams said. “Everybody knows the rules. Breaking the law is breaking the law. We agreed.”

Fourteenth District City Councilman José Huizar, a leader in crafting the mural ordinance, is optimistic about the progress. A number of new Downtown murals, including one from artists who go by the names Saber and Zes at Seventh and Mateo streets, are in the approval pipeline, Huizar noted. He also dismissed most confusion with registration as resulting from people who are trying to permit commercial advertisements as original public art. 

“There have been more applications than [Cultural Affairs] used to permit in a given year prior to the ban, so we’re encouraged by that,” Huizar said in an email. “We fully expect more murals on buildings to happen in Downtown in the coming months.”

In the middle of it all are artists familiar with the ramifications of street art. When asked how it feels to have one of his works whitewashed because of improper registration, “Urban Bigfoot” painter English responded demurely, saying he has gotten used to seeing murals disappear “all the time.”

“I never thought anyone had animosity toward my murals,” he said. “If you’re a bureaucrat, you need the paperwork signed. That’s just your job.”

Still, the notion that murals in L.A. can finally have legal protections is an exciting thought for English. It’s a historic moment, he said, and that means that glitches and a slow start are to be expected. 

eddie@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @eddiekimx

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014