Graffiti, Billboards, and Reclaiming Public Space Appropriated by Illegal Advertising

Left, graffiti on freeway mural; right, signs erected without permits or inspections

What is the difference between those who spray paint gang slogans and other kinds of graffiti on public walls and companies that put up illegal billboards and supergraphic signs?  What is the difference, fundamentally, between graffiti and illegal outdoor advertising?   Both make a claim on public space, saying “Look at this!” without observing any laws or considering that citizens might deserve a voice in what they’re forced to see when they drive, walk, or otherwise experience their urban environment.

One big difference , of course, is that the tagger is actively pursued and prosecuted, and the city and property owners spend millions each year getting rid of  graffiti, while the rogue billboard company and its corporate advertising enablers watch their cash registers ring.   And the city, at least until recently, has essentially shrugged, no doubt because illegal acts of corporations that hire city hall lobbyists and fund political campaigns are not perceived to be the same threat to the public fabric as that represented by taggers furtively prowling the streets with their spray cans.

But consider the definition of graffiti in the Los Angeles City municipal code, which calls it “any form of unauthorized inscription, word, figure or design which is marked, etched, scratched, drawn, sprayed, painted or otherwise affixed to or on any surface of public or private property, including but not limited to, buildings, walls, signs, structures or places, or other surfaces, regardless of the nature of the material of that structural component.”

Those placing graffiti can be arrested, and property owners can be cited and fined for failing to remove graffiti.  So if illegal signs fit the definition of graffiti, why shouldn’t sign companies be charged with a criminal act, and owners cited for allowing the signs to be put up on their properties.   (Update:  The L.A. City Attorney’s office has rendered an informal opinion that  the word “authorized” in the ordinance refers only to authorization by a property owner, and that if an illegal sign is placed with permission of the property owner the graffiti ordinance would not apply.)

This scenario isn’t just idle conjecture by those who have despaired of the city’s past inability to control illegal billboards, supergraphic signs, and other forms of commercial advertising in public spaces.   A professor at California Baptist University in Riverside has authored an academic paper that makes a strong case for just such an equation between illegal signs and graffiti, pointing out that vigorous prosecution of taggers and others placing graffiti while treating the placement of illegal signage as a misdemeanor with trivial penalties is directly related to corporate influence in urban governmental affairs.  See Spatial Distributions of Power:  Illegal Billboards as Graffiti in Los Angeles.

A good case in point dates back to 2007, when a company called L.A. Outdoor Advertising erected several full-sized, doubled sided billboards alongside the 110 freeway downtown without seeking any required city or state permits.  After being cited by the Department of Building and Safety, then-director Andrew Adelman called it the most blatant code violation he’d seen in all his years at the department.  Despite this, those billboards are still in place, directly in the line of sight of the hundreds of thousands of motorists who use that freeway every day,  and the billboard company has most certainly pocketed hundreds of thousands in revenue.

Another is a supergraphic sign on a building near Marina Del Rey that was cited for being illegally erected back in 2006.  Unlike numerous other supergraphic signs around the city, this one isn’t protected by any of the injunctions issued the past two years by a federal court judge, or stayed pending the city’s appeal to the 9th Circuit.   Nevertheless, the latest in a series of signs still looms over its surroundings, bringing revenue to the sign company and property owner estimated in similar cases to be upwards of $50,000 a month.

The last example we’ll cite is that of Fuel Outdoor, a New York company that began putting up movie-poster style billboards around the city more than five years ago, then sued when cited for violating the city’s ban on off-site signs.  That case dragged through the courts until late last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to a lower court decision rejecting the company’s claim that the ban violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection and free speech.  Yet the signs, which number in the hundreds, are still in place,  claiming public space for corporate advertisers in a manner that isn’t fundamentally different than persons claiming a highly visual public space for a gang name, slogan, or other tag.   See  Supreme Court Won’t Hear Metrolights Appeal

Are there any remedies to this situation, given that even a newly invigorated city attorney’s office is largely hamstrung by the courts and ineffective city codes?  Here’s a video showing what a group of New York City artists did to reclaim some of the public spaces of their city appropriated by illegal advertising.  Taking Back Public Space .

We’re not urging anyone to follow this course of action, but the idea that citizens can empower themselves to reclaim public space resonates with another idea–that citizenship should be valued more highly than consumerism, and that treating people as pawns in a corporate consumer culture seriously diminishes that value.

For more on these activities, see the Public Ad Campaign website.

Dennis Hathaway

4 Responses to “Graffiti, Billboards, and Reclaiming Public Space Appropriated by Illegal Advertising”

  1. jordanseiler says:

    I would add that graffiti in fact might be the lesser evil. marking your environment with personal imagery is a way of psychically connecting with your public environment. This bond creates a connection which creates a sense of responsibility for public space. Graffiti might not be the best way to bond with public space but that doeskin mean that the process does not have serious benefits for the practitioner. if we realize that graffiti might be coming out of a need to exert identity then we might do better creating programs which allow youth to express their personality in public spaces creating citizens that care for the spaces around them. We might find our streets overrun with public murals, community gardens and spaces created by the people who occupy them instead of the corporate concerns.

  2. lalover83 says:

    What is the current daily fine for these greedy metrolights signs? Also what is the daily fine for the supergraphics? Why are they still up?

  3. dennis says:

    The L.A. sign ordinance is part of the zoning code, and the maximum fine for violations is $100/day. That’s obviously little deterrent for most of these signs. There is a public nuisance provision in the municipal code that provides for fines as much as $2,500/day. However, that requires a court filing, which means the cases can drag on and on before any resolution. The city has made such a filing, though, in two cases. One is the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and the other illegal billboards alongside the Harbor Freeway. If successful, the city could potentially reap millions in fines. But as I said, the cases could drag through the courts for a long time.

  4. publicvoice says:

    I have called illegal billboards ORGANIZED GRAFFITI for a while now, it best describes their activity. Our city is in desperate need of funds and here is our answer, clean up the city and make them pay the same amount they made off the signs.

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