In 2002 the City of Los Angeles issued a new sign ordinance that prohibited the installation of new signage that included super graphics, billboards, and even fine art murals.
At that time, major advertising corporations threatened to sue the city when policy makers tried to stop them from proliferating our city with advertising and as a result, the city placed a prohibition on all new super graphic images and ‘mural signs’. Mural signs are defined as hand painted signs with less than 3% text.
Advertising giants claimed that the city was infringing on their right to commercial free speech, a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1976. Under this law, city policy makers can only approve ‘signage’ based on time, place and manner, not content; essentially, policy makers do not have the right to distinguish the difference between art and advertising.
In 2007, L.A. policy makers were still looking at ‘content’ as a defining factor in their approval of signage which included fine art murals, however, in that year they chose to enforce the signage ban all together. As a result, a person, organization or community cannot attain a permit to create a new mural and can face fines as high as $2,000.00 or more if they do not remove what the city deems as ‘prohibited signage’.
Today, advertisers are still ignoring the sign laws; super graphics, traditional billboards and digital billboards are still being installed, however, our city attorney is taking steps to take down some of the illegal signs. Although city fines are steep, the profits accrued from property owners ‘renting’ space to large corporate advertisers outweigh the fines and it is not clear whether the fines are even being paid.
Currently, new murals are prohibited on private property in the City of Los Angeles, which includes corporate property and much of our visual urban space. An estimated 1,500 murals once enhanced our public space are in under threat. For example, nearly 70% of the murals that SPARC created are are now gone, decaying, are covered in ‘tagging’ or being replaced with corporate advertising. New mural production on private property remains essentially illegal, however, the city deems it lawful to restore murals.
SPARC, in partnership with art organizations in Los Angeles, is currently working with city departments to find a way to create policies that will make mural production legal again in L.A. Meanwhile, corporate advertising giants continue to cover our city with ads while L.A’s legacy as the mural capital of the world is undermined.