Progress for Murals in the Southland (And Hopefully Long Beach)

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With the fleeting moment of the Wilmore 9 Festival passing a few weeks ago, the lasting footprint has turned out to be the handful of murals painted on the side of a couple commercial buildings on North Pine in Downtown Long Beach.

Unlike many artistically safe murals adorning the neighborhoods across Long Beach, these new pieces—though aesthetically appealing and artistically engaging—are less likely to be used at gateways into neighborhoods like California Heights or Craftsman Village. They provoke by sharing content that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. 

More than murals, they are art.

There is an ongoing debate around all public art, but more specifically murals. This is due in part to the relatively low financial investment: Paint on a blank wall versus the various three dimensional sculptures that often requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor and material, building code approvals and substantial patronage. In fact, many muralist or street artists are willing to share their art form for free; exposure is payment enough.  

Furthermore, this is not a discussion about tagging, where rapidly scripted signatures create blighted neighborhoods. Instead this is about commissioned murals, which are often times no less controversial.

The City of Los Angeles recently passed an ordinance that lifts its decade-long ban on murals across the city. Despite being characterized as a City of Murals, Los Angeles has struggled with a variety of issues emerging with the proliferation of murals across the city, including some works of lesser quality. works located in more sensitive areas, or in some cases pushing the boundary of advertising. 

As the Los Angeles City Council voted to remove the arbitrary moratorium on murals, the ordinance was crafted to include a variety of countermeasures to mitigate potentially negative impacts since—like any artistic endeavor—murals can be contentious while also requiring skill to complete them with quality. L.A.'s moratorium on murals surrounded three major factors: placement, de facto marketing, and the quality of craft.

Mural BU 02JPEGThe murals' placement was often the greatest contention as they would sometimes be painted in residential neighborhoods, like when singer Chris Brown commissioned street-art style monsters to be painted on a retaining wall surrounding his Hollywood Hills property—much to the displeasure of neighbors, which eventually had the sharp-teethed creatures removed. The new City of Los Angeles ordinance requires that the murals be located in commercial or industrial areas and be registered with the City along with a modest application fee. The new ordinance does allow for residential neighborhoods to “opt-in” to the program though the large, uninterrupted blank walls of commercial buildings typically provide the best canvases.

While placement in less traditional environments like residential neighborhoods were part of the drive behind the Los Angeles’s mural ban, the growing use of murals as de facto marketing for local businesses was another. At a time when large billboards were being mounted atop neighborhoods serving retail buildings and on poles in front of homes located on busy thoroughfares, these murals started blurring the line between art and advertising. A grocery store adorn with a mural made up of farming scenery can be fairly innocuous if thoughtfully done; that exercise becomes more like marketing once the chicken, cow and produce are arranged as a menu with pricing information.

Looking back on L.A.'s ban, uniformity—like the many derivative murals that are throughout Long Beach, often being redundant aesthetically and subject-wise—was not a primary driver for the Council to ban new murals across the city a decade ago. In some cases the quality of the craft was a primary issue as the relatively low entry point to becoming a muralist included a canvas—blank wall or fence—and paint. Good intentions with poor execution can result in otherwise innocuous blank walls becoming obnoxious spectacles that viewers cannot escape. Murals are art, not just a graphic to be printed on a larger canvas.

Those new additions on North Pine were created by talented artists using thoughtful stories or messages and visually stimulating designs. A local community leader curated the team of artists and the Arts Council for Long Beach provided a micro-grant to support the collection.

Even though they may not be adored by everyone in this neighborhood, they sufficiently diversify the portfolio of publicly accessible, quality art in the downtown. Whether these or other progressive pieces before them—such as the 2010 panopticon-inspired mural at First Street and Frontenac Court made by Los Angeles artist Chase [pictured above]—universal acceptance of art is practically impossible. However, it is hard to argue that art, contentious or otherwise, enriches the texture of a city and should be implemented on larger scales

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Too derivative? Murals throughout Long Beach, from Downtown to California Heights.

The other direction is that when murals are created to please everyone (or avoid offending somebody), the ultimate product risks not inspiring anyone. While they are often attractive with the familiar scenery of notable past Long Beach residents, neighborhoods filled with California bungalows, crashing waves on the beach or the Villa Riviera in the background, these murals can—as previously mentioned—become derivative or redundant.

As many of the murals in Long Beach have been implemented as part of city/community beautification, government oversight had been direct. For those projects outside of the direct involvement of local government, it is worth reflecting on the recent efforts by the City of Los Angeles to support muralists while addressing concerns that resulted in the decade long moratorium. The Arts Council for Long Beach’s Advisory Committee for Public Art can also provide useful guidance for those creating or supporting new murals, including insight on current regulations as well as sharing a directory of local artists.  

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