Los Angeles grapples with saving its murals

Riding shotgun through a sprawling cityscape of store-front churches, fruit stands, and radiator shops, Armando Herman gestures left and right like an excited tour guide.

"That's beautiful, it has history and heritage, expresses unity and aspiration," he says, pointing to a mural 15 feet high, replete with images of Aztec figures, animals, and soldiers.

"That's not," he says, pointing to an equal-sized explosion of spray-painted signatures, gang initials, cryptic symbols, and numbers. "That is gangs defining turf, defacing the city."

His comments frame a heated debate that has erupted across the nation's second-largest city that hinges on an age-old question: Who gets to define art?

From London to Beijing legions of young people have transformed the gray expanse of urban environments into a tangle of color with spray paint and derring-do. And city budgets spend billions yearly to paint them out.

In Los Angeles, known worldwide as a leading center of mural art, there exists another painted tradition: scenes filled with historic figures and dozens of carefully crafted mythological creatures by artists whose reputations span the globe.

Their efforts have long been supported by funding from the and nonprofit organizations, and recognized as a way to showcase a cultural history in a city vibrant with Asian, African-American, Latino, and caucasian communities. At the same time, the structure of the mural program has quietly nurtured aspiring youth, and collectively they have produced thousands of urban paintings that have defined the street look of America's most multicultural city.

But after several years of funding cuts and policy shifts, artists once drawn to L.A. are moving elsewhere, to Oregon and Philadelphia. And the murals - some decades old - are threatened by deterioration from age, a growing number of gang markings, and city inspectors who are more rigorously demanding that property owners keep their outer walls mural free.

"I am grieved by the condition of existing murals, no public policy to support them, and a coming generation which has begun to deface what we have because they have no context to understand the heritage behind them or a way to channel their own talent to produce their own," says Judy Baca, a professor of cultural studies and public and ethnic art at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The situation has been exacerbated to the point that Baca, along with others, feel that a renewed effort to mentor freelance street artists will help preserve a cultural legacy while making room for the artistic expression of a new generation.

Mr. Herman, a teacher and lifelong Boyle Heights resident, is pushing the solution of enforcing a little-used city ordinance that allows the city to regulate murals that are adjacent to public property. Prodded by such activism, city inspectors recently began telling some property owners they must remove exterior murals or paint them over.

The augmented enforcement has raised the hackles of constitutional scholars who question the legality of limiting art and messages on private property - and the fairness of targeting poorer communities just miles from where painted corporate ads splash underwear-clad models up to 10 stories high.

The city's response has also been raising eyebrows among property owners, some of whom do not want to alter their walls, and some of whom are afraid of gang response.

"Building inspectors told me to paint over the mural by my shop, but I am loath to do so," says Hank Dayani, who owns a storeon Cesar Chavez Avenue. "It was done before we bought it and I am concerned that whatever group is affiliated with the markings may [retaliate]."

Faced with such dilemmas, a pilot program is offering to help both artists and property owners obtain permits to create, and in some cases restore mural art.

But the program only has $60,000 to work with, and some feel in a county that spends $10 million annually in graffiti removal that is hardly enough. The limits to the funding also means some artists and murals may get preferential treatment over others.

Professor Baca fears that the process of choosing what goes and what stays could be a form of censorship. Story lines such as police brutality, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and others which may be meaningful to residents could be squashed through official channels.

"What is important about L.A. and any mural production is the utter democracy of it," says Baca. "There is a complete range of work telling the stories of all and not just a few."

In 1976, Baca formed the Social Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) to produce and protect public art and conduct educational programs about the potential of decorated walls to address the realities of inner-city living. For years, SPARC - with the help of city funding - kept Los Angeles at the cutting edge with dozens of projects in every region of the city. But funding for SPARC and municipal support for mural painting slowed to a trickle and was eventually cut off for good in 2003.

Now, faced with the new administration of Hispanic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa - who is perceived as far more supportive of the city's murals - Baca and others say they are preparing another proposal for Los Angeles, asking for close to $3 million.

"The hard part is that there is very little money to be freed up in local government these days," says Anne Hawthorne, associate deputy director of SPARC. Reestablishing an educational component that can help both youth and communities understand why the murals are an important part of the cityscape is key, she says.

"What you have with an active city-wide production program with a thriving artist's commitment is that a whole generation of young people not only get trained as artists and restorers, but they learn to respect and protect existing murals," says Hawthorne. "One thing that drives young graffiti taggers is they want to see their name up on the wall. By engaging them in an artistic aesthetic, they can transform that energy into a wish and knowledge how to create something beautiful and meaningful."

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