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Art or Advertising? Proposed Mural Ordinance Tries to Sort It Out

Portion of restored "History of Highland Park" mural
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The city has its work cut out for it as it tries to craft its Stumptown-inspired proposed mural ordinance: how can it tell the difference between an advertisement and a work of art?

Everyone debating how to craft the new ordinance agrees that advertisements shouldn't be protected in the same way as other murals, but the dividing line isn't always obvious—and would-be advertisers can exploit that to their advantage. Under the proposed mural ordinance, commercial murals that break the no-new-signs law are at risk of being taken down by the city and the property owner can face fines. Noncommercial murals, on the other hand, would be protected. Previously, public art seemed to get caught in the middle when the city tried to crack down on illegal signage and put a moratorium on murals in the process.

KCET comes up with a few examples of advertisements that try to blur the line between art and commerce.

Artist Anthony Lister painted a mural called "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" for 20th Century Fox but his comments seem to be pleading for the mural's broader artistic merit: "There are many adventure painters here in L.A. right now, like these apes, struggling to live the way they want to live." Near a Coca-Cola bottling distribution plant in downtown. It looks like a typical advertisement and its "skyline" of Los Angeles is the only tenuous connection to the community. Although the owner of the warehouse where it was placed wasn't paid, he could be on the hook for a fine from the city for breaking the no-new-signs ordinance.

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But artists worry that noncommercial murals can be put at risk depending on the rules.

The "History of Highland Park" mural above that was created in 1978 originally included commercial logos of Coca-Cola and Sparkletts. Those logos were edited out when the mural was restored so that it would be obvious that the mural wasn't an advertisement. The artists restoring the piece didn't want the piece to be at risk of being removed. But then the city asked that the mural be restored to its original state—logos and all.

"Community members pointed out changes to the original mural and asked that they be put back to their original state," assured District 14 spokesperson Rick Coca. "Eventually they were."