A few weeks ago, Valley Village resident Barbara Black decided to allow young artists from North Hollywood High School to spray paint a mural on her fence and garage on Otsego Street, which was an upgrade from a mural that had already been there for several months.
But there was a problem: Murals are banned in the city of Los Angeles without a proper permit.
The ban on murals has been in effect since 2002 when it was clumped into an ordinance regulating billboards and other signs. A homeowner who wants to put up a mural or sign has to obtain a permit from the city.
“Once upon a time the cultural affairs department used to allow these, now they’re no longer permitted until the laws change,” said David Lara, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
Black received a citation for her original mural, which contained more than 3 percent text, constituting it as a sign, according to the city ordinance. The text was painted over so that it would be considered a mural, but even that change did not make it legal.
“It's kind of a Catch-22 situation," Lara said. "In this case, you either have a sign or a mural. Both of those are not allowed in the city without the proper permit."
Black has until Thursday to whitewash the mural on her fence, then she has 15 days to file an appeal with the city. The city won’t check to see if she removed the mural until the appeal period is over.
When Black, an artist, came up with the idea to allow high school students to use her fence as a blank canvas, she said she called the Los Angeles Police Department North Hollywood station to ask them if it was acceptable.
"They asked me if the wall was on private property, and I said, 'Yes,' and they said, 'We don’t see anything wrong with painting it,'" Black said, adding that she didn't even think to call Building and Safety.
When she received the $336 citation two weeks later, a local church, NoHo New Thought, took up a collection for it.
"God himself paid my fine," she said.
Black said she is not soliciting funds currently to pay a possible second citation but is hoping to seek help from a lawyer or the American Civil Liberties Union.
For Black, this is no longer a question of art. She said she believes that Building and Safety's order to remove her mural is an infringement on her civil rights.
"I am willing to cover it, which to me is whitewashing," Black said. "Anything less than that is Gestapo tactics.... They're not whitewashing a wall, they're whitewashing me."
The fence on the side of Black’s property has been an ongoing issue, said Neighborhood Council Valley Village President Tony Braswell.
Last fall, Black put up dozens of poster boards on the fence with messages warning residents that her neighbors installed security cameras around their property. She said she wanted to inform people that they were there.
“I’m an advocate of privacy,” she said.
But the signs were damaged during the winter rains and Black took them down. Not long after, the mural went up, and the Neighborhood Council Valley Village received several complaints. Unaware residents thought the wall was defamed.
“It’s a very green, cohesive community,” Braswell said. “It doesn’t fit in with the overall character of the community. People were just concerned that if you drive by, it’s not something you expect to see.”
Black said she told the city that she would cover the mural with an acceptable material, but she was told to whitewash it, she said.
"If I'm covering it, now it's not really a mural, now it's a piece of artwork that I own on my property in storage. They're still saying they're going to cite me. Are they going to cite me for a mural which isn't being shown?" Black said.
The Internet was ringing with cries to save the art when the homeowner first received the citation. Nohoartsdistrict.com urged readers to send tweets and emails to District 2 Councilmember Paul Krekorian. A YouTube video featuring Kurt Miller, a friend of Black, was uploaded last week as another message of support, which insinuates that the city wants the mural taken down because it is a form of graffiti art.
The mural has been both criticized and applauded for its use of graffiti art. Black said she had to refine it to make it more of a fine art piece than a piece of “classic graffiti art” because she didn’t want to offend anyone.
But whether the mural is a form of graffiti art or fine art didn't factor into the city's decision to issue a citation, Lara said.
"It had nothing to do with it," he said. "Under the law, it was considered a sign."
Black defended the placement of the mural in the alley and said on a recent Saturday afternoon no one walked by it except for a friend of one of the artists.
"If someone is not interested in it, they can walk away," she said.
Yet Black's priority has shifted from defending the artwork to storing it without having to whitewash it.
"The issue for me has changed," she said. "Before, it was defending the right of the mural. But I'm not looking to break the law. It wasn't to be an advocate, it wasn't to be defiant, it was just to put a piece of artwork in an alley. It's virtually non-intrusive in anybody's life."
Black says she plans to call officials in the Building and Safety Department on Monday to talk to them about whether she could use a tarp or cover to preserve the art, to prevent it from being painted over.
"I'm willing to do what they're asking, to take it off the street. And they're telling me that only whitewashing, will they be happy with it,” she said.
Whitewashing is not a decision Black wants to make. When she talked about the subject, her eyes began to tear up. The mural has changed dramatically since it was painted. The students have returned every weekend to add to or change panels. A recent panel was changed to reflect a city scene that included Lankershim Boulevard, the heart of the NoHo Arts District, on it.
"It's gorgeous, huh?" Black said. "It's like nothing you've ever seen. Wonderful, colorful expression. It's mesmerizing."