L.A. Works to Reclaim Title as Mural Capital
Is it art or is it graffiti? The question has plagued the city of Los Angeles for over a decade. But the answer is in the eye of the beholder.
Street artist Saber is known across the world for his graffiti.
“I travel around the world and I’m treated like a celebrity but in L.A., I’m treated like a criminal,” explains Saber.
Saber is best known for creating the largest mural in the world along the Los Angeles River. Measuring 250 feet long, many people saw it as an incredible work of art, the city saw it as something to be erased.
One reason is because of a 2002 city ordinance, which put an essential ban on murals. But nearly a decade later, the city is hoping to fix that by redefining what a mural is.
“Basically if you paint on a wall, it’s a mural. There’s no way to define what art really is,” says Saber.
Street artist Robbie Conal, who has been plastering the city with his iconic posters since the 1980s, understands why there has been such a debate.
“When you talk about graffiti, it’s a great art form, an indigenous art form that bubbles up from the street like all great art,” Conal explains.
Between first amendment issues and property owners’ rights, the city has a lot of angles to consider before they adopt a new ordinance.
“This is a balancing act we are trying to achieve,” said Councilman Ed Reyes during a recent meeting between the city council, the Department of City Planning and members of the community.
But the city is in favor of revitalizing the mural culture of L.A.
“Why would we not want to celebrate through our murals, that which makes us so unique?” asks Reyes.
But looking around the city, especially in Downtown's Warehouse District, it seems the murals never stopped. One reason? The LA Freewalls Project run by Daniel Lahoda. They work directly with artists and property owners to curate murals, all without the city’s permission.
“No we don’t have a single permit for any of these walls,” says Lahoda.
From Conal to Saber to Shepard Fairey, the streets of L.A. have become an outdoor gallery, one that is loved and supported by the community.
“No one ever complained so the city never took note. They never had a reason to come down here,” explains Lahoda as he stands in front of a giant bird, a mural created by the artist Roa in conjunction with the LA Freewalls Project.
But until the law is reversed, artists can head to the public art walls in Venice, a legal place for them to express themselves.
As Conal explains, graffiti has always been a way for the voiceless to be heard.
“It’s more like 'I’m here, I exist,'” says Conal.
That’s why Max, 21, heads to the walls along Venice beach.
“If it wasn’t for this, I’d be in a gang. I would have been dead or in jail, but this gave me another option."
For Max, it’s not about the money, just the joy of painting and the freedom to express himself. But for Saber, it’s his livelihood, one he’s willing to fight for.
“I never thought I’d be in City Hall,” Saber says with a bit of disbelief. “I always thought I’d be in county jail.”
Saber gathered over 1,000 signatures for his petition to end the mural ordinance.
“The whole goal behind what we do is art, it’s to create art and to make more of it,” says Saber.
The next several months will prove crucial as the city council rewrites the mural ordinance. But the dream is alive for those involved, believing that one day soon, L.A. will reclaim the spot at the top, as the mural capital of the world.
For the full proposal by the city's Planning and Land Use Management on the mural ordiance click here.