Thursday, August 14, 2008

A problem solved by art, then jacked up by government tools

I caught this story in the LA Times, which has also made it on the local news rotation here in Southern California.

A small family-owned grocery business in Highland Park (a north east Los Angeles neighborhood) was having a difficult time with graffiti—the owners told the LA Times that the store had been hit by “taggers” over 100 times. After some research, the Antonio family found that buildings in the area with murals were not being hit by graffiti. As it turns out, murals are highly respected in the world of street art and are generally untouched out of respect for the creators. The Antonio family spent $3,000 hiring some local artists to create a mural on the side of their grocery store. The plan worked—after mural was finished, the store went untouched for three months. Art solving real-world problems, very cool.

Enter The City. The LA Times article reports that after about three months, the city threatened the Antonio family with a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment if it the mural wasn’t removed. City crews then came by and whitewashed the side of the building. Why? Usually the city doesn’t go after murals unless someone complains.

A Highland Park resident did complain. She said that the mural was “gang looking” and made her “nervous”. The kicker here is that she is with the Highland Park Neighborhood Council (bletch).

There are a several of things that bother me about this. First of all, the director of the city’s Office of Community Beautification had this to say about the mural—“There’s obviously some talent here, but that’s just graffiti”. How condescending—to demure enough to admit that there is some artistic talent behind the object, but then to negate completely its status as art. That we have city officials to decide what is and is not art is completely appalling; I find this (at the risk of hyperbole, I admit) rather terrifying as an artist. That the art in question was on private property is even more heinous. How is it that someone can use an “excessive advertising” ordinance to force a private citizen to remove something of artistic value (and commercial value—remember the $3,000 price tag) from his or her own property? I’m terribly sorry if it made some (probably white) neighbor “nervous”, but seriously.

If you want to live in a community where things like this are controlled very carefully, the United States has thousands of KB Home/DR Horton/etc. communities available with very stringent and proto-fascist Home Owners Associations. You can even run for HOA president, where being a complete asshole will garner you lots of praise. Outside of that, however, I would hope that the rights of private citizens to decide for themselves what constitutes art without prior consent of the government would prevail over the at best unaware, and at worst, racist “feelings” of a member of the Highland Park Neighborhood Council.

And just for the record: since the city painted over the Antonio family’s mural, the wall is getting tagged again. I hope that lady from the Neighborhood Council likes looking at that.
(photo of mural by Jacob Antonio Jr., of the Antonio family)