Art of the City (Or Not): Why Is Some Art Criminalized?

By Imade Nibokum

The derelict bridges, crumbling brick walls and weed-spotted freeway underpasses of greater Los Angeles have something beyond urban neglect in common: murals. Some are lyrical elaborate tags, some are wildly abstract and some are narratives about work or faith or grief in the tradition of Mexico’s modernist masters. Many are worth attention and preservation: part of the city’s Chicano mural movement.

But two very different city laws set up a struggle over the right of the art to occupy public space. “Are these murals art?” then becomes another question: How is public space really public?

In 2002, the Los Angeles ordinance Comprehensive Sign Code banned murals on private property.

Why? In 1986, in response to the profusion of murals on unwanted public space, the city decided it had to respond. “We created this definition of mural signs in order to actually codify this ‘anything goes’ approach,” says Tanner Blackman, the Planning Director in City Councilman Jose Huizar’s 14th District office, who is now working with city officials to revise the 2002 ordinance. The city, he recalls, “felt they needed regulation and definition, but the point was to let art happen.”

Tanner explains that according to the 1986 code, “murals with more than three percent text, whether graffiti-style or manuscript, were classified as signs, while theoretically, giant paintings of commercial logos could be considered a mural.”

As a result, says Blackman, advertisers started suing Los Angeles and other cities that had an art exemption in their sign codes. He adds: “If we were going to allow unlimited art in a city, we were going to have to allow unlimited space for advertising in our city.” So, to avoid a potential legal Armageddon, mural art on private property was officially banned. A decade later, muralists are still angry, and some are fighting back.

SCENES FROM A BATTLEGROUND

Boyle Heights native Raul Gonzalez

Boyle Heights native Raul Gonzalez

Raul Gonzalez
“From Chicano studies, we learned that the culture was destroyed through a system of colonization and a system of global white supremacy. Everything that was burned on purpose we’re going to bring it back on purpose and we’re going to make them pay for it.” This payback is revolutionary, but also perfectly legal. After taking art and business classes at East Los Angeles College, Gonzalez decided to bid on public contracts that allow him to paint murals over gang graffiti. The city of Los Angeles awarded his business a three-year contract, partially due to his strategic underbidding.

Raul Gonzalez' Art Heals Mural Features Toypurina, a 24 year old shaman who fought the San Gabriel Mission in 1785 to preserve her native culture

Raul Gonzalez’ “Art Heals” mural features Toypurina, a 24 year old shaman who fought the San Gabriel Mission in 1785 to preserve her native culture

Raul Gonzalez
“We’re not doing it just for the money, we’re doing it because we want to bring the truth,” Gonzalez says in an emphatic, rapid-fire rhythm. “Boyle Heights, L.A. is pretty much Little Mexico. What makes us see each other as a common ground? That’s how we came up with Mictlan Murals. “Mictlan” means the place of rest and transformation, and it also means the ultimate common ground.”
  Raul Gonzalez
Gonzalez’ distrust of authority was heightened by the creation of his 2008 “Art Heals” mural in Ramona Gardens, L.A.’s oldest housing projects which opened in 1941. ‘We finished it in three weeks, and we got the hell out of there because the cops kept on coming and stopping and trying to intimidate us.” [The police deny this.] That trouble reminded Gonzalez of the true purpose for his art. “The cops don’t live here” he says. “The only people that matter to me are the people who live here because they have to see this [mural] every day.”

Ramona Gardens native George Sarabia discusses the murder that inspired residents to request the Art Heals mural

Ramona Gardens native George Sarabia addresses the murder that inspired the community to request the “Art Heals” mural

George Sarabia
As a fixture in the Ramona Gardens community for forty years, gang interventionist George Sarabia has a different perspective. Sarabia considers the image featuring a clash between two men wearing an ancient headdress and a military helmet as a symbol of divisive confrontation. “There was a young man that was killed in police custody [Mauricio Cornejo in 2007] and the community wanted to memorialize him and that was a way for them to heal and to remember. But what it does, I think, is it creates a tone for future generations to be reminded of the hatred between the police and the community and that leads to violence between one and other.”
  Officer Jack Tuck
Ironically, a Hollenbeck graffiti enforcement officer who works in the Boyle Heights area has a more positive view of the “Art Heals” mural. In addition to contentious imagery, this painting includes images of Ramona Gardens residents that mirror the history of their ancestors. “Personally I think it’s alright” says officer Jack Tuck. “It’s been there for years already. It’s not really anything. Most of that is Mexican culture.”

Hollenbeck police officer Jose Padilla believe the Ghosts Of Barrio mural could have been a gang corner

Hollenbeck police officer Jose Padilla believe the “Ghost of the Barrio” mural could have been a gang corner

Officer Jose Padilla
Two murals from the 1970s are a part of a landscape of public art that Hollenbeck police officers in Boyle Heights perceive as gang messages. Wayne Healy’s “Ghosts of the Barrio” has been celebrated by the Los Angeles Mural Assessment and Conservation Project, but to community relations officer Jose Padilla, the mural’s meaning is what’s important.“ That’s the way gang members dressed back in that time. Had I seen that when I was growing up around there, I would say this is a gang corner.” Officer Padilla explains what complicates his association with gang activity. “The way they got away with it is they had a dynasty: the revolutionary, the Spaniard, so now its art. It’s no longer just depicting the gang life.”
George Sarabia
For Sarabia, “Ghosts of the Barrio” reflects conflict of a different kind. “When I look at this mural, I see culture, I see the warrior, the rebels who are fighting for our cause and I see the guys hanging out like they would on any day. People might not like the culture or might not understand it, but it’s the culture that I grew up in and a lot of other people did too.”

Hazard Grande mural currently stands behind a water pipe construction area in Ramona Gardens

Hazard Grande mural currently stands behind a water pipe construction area in Ramona Gardens

Officer Jose Padilla
An even more obvious example of potential gang imagery is Ramona Gardens’ Hazard Grande. Though this neighborhood is situated near Hazard Park, it’s also known for Big Hazard, a gang rooted in Ramona Gardens for several generations. Padilla is well aware of the gang connection, but he is not alarmed by this work. “It’s not glorifying the gang. It’s not saying that ‘we’re better than anyone else’.” The painting of a bell-bottomed couple standing in front of rainbows is far from what most would imagine as gang art.
George Sarabia
Despite the police tension and gang activity that was prevalent during Ramona Gardens’ first murals, Sarabia believes that before the private mural ban, the predominantly Chicano residents had the safety of being surrounded by their Mexican heritage. He witnessed cultural symbols in the community “get erased little by little” as police crackdowns on perceived gang murals led to an increased ‘pinkwashed’ landscape of artless, aging buildings. “It [the murals] was a way to create peace throughout the Boyle Heights community” says Sarabia. Those involved could have been both the problem and the solution. The history of murals in Ramona Gardens is as complicated as the fight to restore it. “A lot of the murals that you see, they’re connected to the gang because they were the ones to help the artist put them up and design them.”

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