Has the passing of L.A.’s forward thinking ‘mural ordinance’ inadvertently paved the way for street art’s version of the “advertorial”? Art may no longer be a crime, but is subversion of the rules?

Large scale mural art has rocketed in popularity over the last few years, incredible apartment block sized art can really blow you away. From a social aspect it can help to ‘beautify’ neighbourhoods, it could even help kick start a complete transformation. The often dank and depressing buildings come about thanks to worrying socio-economic currents hidden from public view by the jangling of a slick city-centre sized set of shiny car keys.

However, there would appear to be a trend of street art and advertising (street-advertising?) with collaboration on overtly commerical large scale murals. These are two entities who have been uneasy, and unlikely, bedfellows for some time now. Coca Cola’s mural in London prior to the London Olympics in 2012 being an example of perception in some sections of the street art community. This wall lasted no longer than a couple of days before being defaced, although this was likely due to more than solely advertising messaging on the wall…

Coca cola

Image: London Vandal

But could the corporate piggybacking on newly legalised street art murals be threatening to derail one of L.A.’s most culturally significant rulings of the past decade?

In September 2013 L.A. passed the mural ordinance that, in layman’s terms, gave artists or bodies with the legal permission the right to paint murals in the city without fear of prosecution. It spawned the fist-pumping hashtag #artisofficiallynotacrime.

Discussions on these legal murals had been rolling since late 2011, where it had since been drafted and re-drafted to help protect it from misuse (essentially companies high-jacking murals for advertising – the reason for the original ban coming into place). The final version does not permit murals on single-family homes, nor does it permit artwork to be up for any less than a 2 year period. Thus it is is clearly not a ruling with the ephemeral nature of street art, such as wheatpasting, in mind.

The reason for this becomes clear when understanding the origins of the ruling. The idea to bring this new mural ordinance into effect was to rebuild and nurture L.A.’s title of ‘Mural Capital of the World’. Its murals have been and are to be painted with reflection upon the community that stares up at them. Important examples from the past being those like the controversial America Tropical by David Alfaro Siqueiros whose painting displayed the image of an Indian peon being crucified by American oppression.


Image: America Tropical, David Alfaro Siqueiros

As Ed Fuentes says in this article, “it has to be remembered that the reputation came from quality works of murals with historical content, or that mastered scale on space — or both”. So it’s with concern that some residents of L.A. and interested onlookers elsewhere see international corporations edging their way in on this, subverting the rules that were put in place to stop them.

Risk’s new mural (below) looks great, and it’s easy to take it at face value as an impressive piece of art. But, do you think that the ‘M’ looks familiar? Yeah? That is because it’s the ‘M’ belonging to the sponsor, Miller.

I haven’t an issue with artists who are commissioned by corporations to paint. People a) have to pay bills, b) want to make a good living from their passion, and c) want their work to reach new audiences. I also like when corporations support the arts, or ‘give something back’. I want art, and artists, to be supported because I love discovering and witnessing it.

What doesn’t sit quite right here is the apparent corporate disregard for community enriching projects such as this. It’s also difficult to understand some of the organisers’ attitude to the project for presumably allowing this to go ahead.


Image: Risk mural, KCET.org

It’s the unwelcomed piggybacking by corporations, that could well undermine and cheapen a hugely valuable project to the city at best, and cut it short at worst. The addition of the ‘M’ of Miller, equally importantly, directly contravenes the rules laid out in the mural ordinance. The rules that were laid out to stop exactly this from happening.

The ‘M’ of Miller allegedly didn’t last much more than a day incidentally – and as RJ from Vandalog wrote on his twitter account, “so if you have a corporate logo on a mural for one day and then erase it and just have a new mural there, is it justified?” Whether this was intended by Miller as a way to get away without being reprimanded is unclear. If it was, it was kind of a deceitful move.

RJ tweet

A similar stunt, though less overt, was conducted by the band Foster the People (or rather the record label behind the band) who used the mural as a PR hook to draw attention to the new album and advertise a surprise gig at the site of the artwork as well as presumably increase audience reach by social sharing. Likewise the piece ‘Urban Bigfoot’ by Ron English has a bit of a hint of its sponsor (Converse) with those big black high top trainers, as pointed out by Ed Fuentes, it is significantly less obvious though but could also contravene the mural ordinance?


Image: Ron English, Urban Bigfoot (LATaco)

I’m really torn by this. The project obviously requires investment, given that the city does not appear to directly invest in these murals. Big money usually comes from wealthy individuals or big corporations. So without them, the art may not exist there in the first place. The work is great, I love to see large scale pieces like these. And without doubt the artwork benefits the artist as well as the corporation, and the community does get art on its walls. In a few months will anyone remember the ‘M’ of Miller, or will it just become “that mural on Third and Main street”?

But it’s the knowledge of these bigger companies feeding money into them because they have the financial power, with apparently a lack of respect (or perhaps understanding?) for the real purpose of the project, that unsettles me. It comes across as greedy, being given an inch and taking a mile, and potentially trampling on a cultural project to get the jump on their competitors, that extra marketing reach, those few extra dollars…

It remains to be seen if the street art advertorial style pieces become more prevalent in L.A. following the mural ordinance – the reaction of those who fought so long for the right to paint will be interesting to gauge over the coming months.


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