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Vandals target Los Angeles’ murals

An increasing graffiti problem is threatening the future of the city’s public works of art—and artists’ rights laws aren’t helping

Kent Twitchell’s Altarpiece, 1983-84, covered by graffiti

los angeles. As Los Angeles’ graffiti problem escalates, the city’s reputation as the mural capital of the world is in jeopardy as its famous wall pieces are disappearing under a sea of spray paint. They are being targeted by vandals who flout the long accepted code that they are off limits for tagging. Delays in removing the graffiti caused by technical and legal complexities, including the threat of possible artists’ rights lawsuits if murals are damaged during their cleaning, can invite more graffiti.

Murals have been a part of the city’s rich artistic fabric for generations. The 1960s and 1970s saw an explosion of public murals with artists such as Frank Romero following in the footsteps of pioneering muralists, including David Alfaro Siqueiros whose downtown mural América Tropical, 1932, is nearing the end of a 23-year conservation project. Murals continued to be a popular form of public art into the 1980s when several were commissioned for the 1984 Olympics Games in Los Angeles. The city boasts around 2,000 murals including the recently restored The Great Wall of Los Angeles, begun in 1976, which at 2,750 ft is the world’s longest.

Copyright laws

Graffiti is on the rise in Los Angeles generally. According to a report in The New York Times, the city removed 35.4 million sq. ft of graffiti during the financial year ending 30 June 2011—a jump of 8.2% from last year. But the city’s budget to remove graffiti was slashed in 2011 by 6.5% to $6.6m.

While agencies such as Caltrans spend $2.5m to $2.7m each year removing graffiti from Los Angeles’ freeways, tagging on murals cannot be removed for fear of artists invoking copyright laws, particularly the Visual Artists Rights Act and the California Art Preservation Act, which forbid the defacing or destruction of public art without the permission of the artist. “There are two laws—one state and one federal—that specifically mandate that once an artist creates a piece, no one but the artist is allowed to touch it,” says Vincent Moreno from Caltrans District 7, which serves Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The one exception is if the tag contains profanity or obscenity in which case Caltrans will paint over it. Caltrans has been threatened with lawsuits by artists for painting over murals, “but we’ve worked out some of those problems”, says Moreno. Artists' copyright lawsuits have proved costly in the past—in 2008, the US government and contractors had to pay Kent Twitchell $1.1m after his famed Monument to Ed Ruscha, painted on the side of a building owned by the US Department of Labor, was painted over while the building was undergoing repairs. The artist was not given the 90-day notice as required by law should the owner of a building decide to paint over a mural.

Value of public art

Money is also an issue for artists who want to preserve their murals. “If an artist wants to work with us to clean the murals, the State of California is willing to assist with the traffic control costs,” says Moreno, adding that in his experience most artists do not have the funds to remove the graffiti. The city’s cultural affairs department has a budget for cleaning murals that have been painted with anti-graffiti coatings. It cleans on average 200 murals a year. “When there is a budget for mural treatment, we contact the artist and have them work with the art conservators, or the artists do the work themselves,” says Pat Gomez of the city’s Public Art division.

“Murals used to be safe from graffiti, but now they are a good place to put tags because you know that they are going to stay there,” says the Getty Conservation Institute’s Leslie Rainer. While everyone agrees that graffiti is the biggest threat to the city’s murals, no one has suggested that artists’ rights laws should be changed. “There needs to be intensive public education on the value of public art,” says Rainer. “If that is successful, then entities like Caltrans could change the laws, but they would have to find other ways of removing graffiti that does not involve painting out murals, and install camera surveillance.”

Adopt-a-mural

Caltrans launched the Mobile Mural project in 2010 with funding from Wells Fargo Property Services in which replicas of Los Angeles’ damaged murals, such as George Sportelli’s Tony Curtis, are digitally reproduced on vinyl. The original murals are painted over. “They are not in any way trying to substitute the original grandeur of the murals. They are there to promote a new medium for displaying public art,” says Moreno.

The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, co-founded by Twitchell and Bill Lasarow, proposes a programme encouraging organisations to set up a fund to maintain a mural in exchange for a named plaque. They are currently seeking sponsors for Twitchell’s Steve McQueen and Strothen Martin murals.

This text was updated on 4 October to clarify the basis of Kent Twitchell's copyright lawsuit

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