Risk's Miller Fortune mural for the LA Freewalls Project (all photos by the Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Risk’s Miller Fortune mural for the LA Freewalls Project (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

With strict regulations on murals only recently lifted in Los Angeles, you might think that the artists and public art facilitators who fought so hard to make murals legal again would be playing it safe to start. You would be wrong.

A few weeks ago, Los Angeles graffiti artist Risk painted a mural in town to promote Miller Fortune (a new bourbon-flavored beer) as part of the LA Freewalls Project. The Miller Fortune logo, the traditional “M” from the Miller beer logo on a black spade, only stayed up on the wall for a day (or a week, depending on how you look at it), but it has still caused outrage. To understand why this mural is so controversial, and why Risk and the LA Freewalls Project’s involvement is so surprising, we need to take a step back and get a bit of historical context.

New murals were effectively banned in Los Angeles in 2002 in the fallout from the city’s efforts to regulate and minimize public advertising that was taking over the city. The ban made it illegal to paint any murals on private property, even with the permission of the property owner. Not every artist obeyed the regulations, but painting murals did put artists and property owners at some risk.

In 2011, a group with graffiti artist Saber as its most vocal spokesperson began fighting back against what they called a “mural moratorium” in LA. Saber belongs to the same crew as Risk and has also painted murals as part of the LA Freewalls Project. The founder of the project, Daniel Lahoda, also played a role in fighting the moratorium.

Late last year, updated regulations were enacted and the first new, now completely legal, murals went up in LA. Now, artists can apply for permits from the city and, as long as the mural is not a commercial advertisement and meets certain technical requirements, they can go ahead and paint. The process of changing the law was drawn out due to concerns about advertisements masquerading as murals. The LA Freewalls Project obtained two of the first mural permits, for a piece by Ron English that was eventually used in an ad for Converse (although there was not a Converse logo on the mural) and a collaborative mural still to be completed by Risk and Shepard Fairey.

Despite all the time and effort that Lahoda and others invested in changing LA’s mural regulations and Lahoda’s claims that they are “not breaking any laws or doing anything improper,” he and the artists involved with his project seem to be ignoring the new rules, or at least interpreting them very loosely.

Detail of Risk's mural, with the blacked-out but still clearly visible Miller Fortune logo (click to enlarge)

Detail of Risk’s mural, with the blacked-out but still clearly visible Miller Fortune logo (click to enlarge)

On January 16, Risk began painting a mural for Miller Fortune at 3rd and South Main streets in LA. The work prominently featured the Miller Fortune logo in its center. It was completed a week later, on the 23rd, and the next day, the “M” in the Miller Fortune logo was blacked out, text reading “@millerfortune” obscured. Despite a layer of black paint, the “M” still seems to show through just fine for anyone taking a close look, and the black spade shape of the logo is still a prominent feature of the mural.

Today, Miller Fortune plans to release a video on YouTube of Risk painting the mural. According to Lahoda, that’s what this whole thing was really about: Miller Fortune was not looking to have an advertisement disguised as a mural in downtown LA; they just wanted a video of Risk to help promote their new drink.

The mural sparked outrage among public space activists such as Jordan Seiler and Dennis Hathaway, who are concerned about LA being covered in supposed murals that are really advertisements. Seiler emphasized to Hyperallergic that the new regulations specifically state that any new murals must not include commercial advertisements.

In general, Lahoda tells Hyperallergic that he’s fine with corporate partnerships for the murals he organizes “as long as the artwork is not compromised and is representative of what they would do on one of these [walls] anyway,” because they ensure paychecks for the artists and help cover the costs of the entire project, even those murals without corporate sponsorship. Rather than producing an obvious billboard, Lahoda works with brands to produce other content around the murals, like the Risk Miller Fortune video. “It’s never like, if you’re a guy on the street and you’re walking around, you’re not getting sold anything,” Lahoda says. “These are not billboards. There’s no direct advertising element to it. The commercialism happens in the context that we create for the purpose of the client.”

Lahoda is happy to help artists get work that keeps them painting, so long as that work does not “compromise the integrity of the art itself.” With such limited arts funding available from nonprofit sources, both Seiler and Lahoda agree that corporate partnerships can be beneficial when done right, and may just be a reality of the world we live in. In this case, though, Seiler believes that the work was clearly an advertisement, not simply patronage.

As for the logo on Risk’s mural, Lahoda says the plan was always to paint over it. Although he has no evidence to the contrary, Seiler calls that “total horseshit” and says, “I would call their bluff and say that the logo was intended to stay up for all time.” He adds that even if the logo was always going to be painted over, the wall has become more than the physical mural itself, since official images being distributed all have the logo intact.

When the local city council district became aware of Risk’s mural and the logo on it, a staffer contacted Lahoda, who explained the plan. Lahoda says the city was fine with it, so long as the finished work did not include any logos.

Lahoda defends Risk’s mural and the practice of temporarily branding it. “The one day of funding we get for making the commercial for the brand is enough to fund permanent murals on that wall for the rest of the year,” he says. He plans to cover the current mural soon with a collaborative piece by Risk and Allison Torneros — although that seems odd given the new regulations, which require murals to stay up for at least two years.

Lahoda has gotten permits under the new regulations, but that’s not how he normally operates. The LA Freewalls Project manages rotating murals on five buildings in LA. While a permit is required for a mural to be acknowledged as such by the city, many of the artists and property owners working with the project are fine taking the risk that the their mural could be painted over by the city. This raises the question of whether there really ever was a mural moratorium, and whether the alleged problem has been solved. The LA Freewalls Project is still functioning largely the same way it was back when activists decried that murals were illegal in LA. Lahoda acknowledges that “technically these type of walls are not permitted but tolerated.”

The LA Freewalls Project is not the only young public art program ignoring regulations. Looking at the history of most so-called street art festivals that have become popular worldwide in the last few years, many of them have — or at least began with — a mentality of asking for forgiveness rather than permission from city regulators.

Seiler has been to both the Nuart Festival in Stavanger, Norway, and the Living Walls Conference in Atlanta. In both cases, he put up artwork over public advertisements without permission. The much more common practice of creating murals with the permission of the property owner but not the city, and hoping that the city will turn a blind eye, seems tame by comparison.

Close-up view of Risk’s Miller Fortune mural

Close-up view of Risk’s Miller Fortune mural

It’s possible that the new LA law is not actually conducive to more public art. The LA Freewalls Project still has to use corporate dollars to fund noncommercial murals, and keeping walls the same for two years at a time may not fit with their model. Plus, many of the graffiti and street artists who want to paint in LA don’t seem bothered if their murals only last for a few months, so long as they’re replaced with more art.

So, is Risk’s spade a spade, or is it a beer ad?

RJ Rushmore has been involved in contemporary art as a writer, curator, photographer, arts administrator, and fan since 2008. With a focus on street art, graffiti, and public art, RJ facilitates and promotes...

9 replies on “When Is a Mural Not a Mural?”

  1. If Risk had always intended to paint over it, they’re claiming it was a do-it-for-the-photo advertisement? Why aren’t all street artists banking on this? Put a Pepsi logo in your piece, upload it to Pepsi’s instagram then paint over it. Only your bank account will know since no one drinks Pepsi.

  2. In 2008 Vespa hired a street artist (Fauxreel) to “do his thing”, using their imagery. It looked like legitimate street art to me, but upon closer inspection, it was almost too good. Seems Guerilla marketing has been around for a while. In 2005, Hummer hired Tats Cru in NYC to do a mural as well.

    I think when artists do this they are lending their brand to anothers. They just feel like a billboard or ad to me. I’m not saying that with angst, but it is just the feeling I get from this work.

  3. Wow. I don’t live in LA, but I wouldn’t want to be part of a community that has this type of ‘street art’…
    I’m so glad I live in a world with Jordan Seiler.

  4. And to further the discussion, is art about brands art or advertisement? I recently took part in a show here in Wisconsin called “Branding Creativity” which asked a group of artists to take on a brand in their work…it caused a bit of controversy between people thinking the show forced artists to celebrate a brand and those that thought it was simply an interesting challenge in creating a unique piece of art…i think the question, along with the mural discussion, could really be brought to each individual piece and answered specifically based on how each artist addresses the challenge. Some simply took a logo and seemed to slap it on a canvas…some seemed to struggle to create an interesting piece without giving the logo the main stage…and some managed to create artwork that simply used a logo to further its own narrative, successfully integrating it into their own style of work. It’s an interesting discussion that I think is answered best through looking at the artist’s own efforts and results rather than a categorical declaration…

    If you’re interested in how “Branding Creativity” turned out, take a look at the link below…

  5. The intent was advertising, even if the logo wasn’t there. The law needs to be modified so that not only should the work not be advertising, but that it shouldn’t be used in advertising as long as the mural is up, or perhaps the first two years. This includes using it as a backdrop in an advertisement or as part of a work with an intent to advertise. Exceptions should be made as a kind of variance, and granted by the community.

    Fleming’s example is good. That’s the intent to create advertising – to combine a brand with another message to create a new message with product or brand placement.

    I should add that businesses should be able to advertise on their own walls, as long as the ad is related directly to the business or what the business sells (like a Coke sign or a painting of a branded product). That’s a different, related issue. If this mural was on a liquor store, I don’t think I could object, even if I didn’t like it.

  6. Calling a spade a spade: so basically the public admin types have their panties in a bunch bcuz they don’t get to cream their salaries or fees off the top of public art vs corporate adverts?

    Get back to me when the private/public sectors hire artists as permanent rather than temp/unemployed/volunteer/freelance labor, and our society values something other than paper pushers.

    So I can buy my own beer, not this Miller swill.

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