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Firm fights to keep supergraphics on Los Angeles high-rises

SkyTag asks a court to allow the large tarp-like signs on up to 118 multistory buildings while the city's billboard laws are reviewed by federal judges.

January 22, 2009|David Zahniser

A company that installs the oversized advertisements known as supergraphics has gone to court to demand that Los Angeles let it keep images on as many as 118 multistory buildings while federal judges review challenges to city billboard regulations.

SkyTag, which says that it produces images "so large they can be seen from space," filed court documents last week saying the city should not try to remove the company's supergraphics from high-rises in West Los Angeles, Koreatown and other neighborhoods until the ban litigation is resolved.

"There are images on all those properties, and we're asking the city to [stop] any enforcement until the case is heard" in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Michael McNeilly, president and founder of Beverly Hills-based SkyTag.

City lawyers oppose the SkyTag request, saying many of the buildings do not yet have "supergraphics," vinyl or plastic images stretched across the sides -- some of which have blocked windows and infuriated office workers. The lawyers warn that an injunction against the city, if granted by a judge, would lead to a proliferation of new supergraphics on dozens of buildings, some more than 20 stories tall.

In response to the company's action, the city's lawyers are demanding that SkyTag post a $2.36-million bond as an upfront payment if the judges uphold the billboard regulations. If the city prevails, fines for SkyTag's 118 locations could exceed $50 million, depending on the number of days that signs are up, the lawyers wrote in court papers.

In an interview Wednesday, McNeilly called the payment demand outrageous, saying it would have a chilling effect on his free speech. He pointed out that three of his images targeted by building inspectors are depictions of the Statue of Liberty and are constitutionally protected.

"I'm an artist putting out a work of art and making a political and artistic statement," he said. "And it's amazing to me that there's such push-back on something that's an iconic image of our country."

Not all of the buildings on McNeilly's list have patriotic imagery, however. One of the addresses submitted to federal court by SkyTag is 6922 Hollywood Blvd., whose north- and east-facing sides feature an advertisement for "I Am King," the cologne marketed by rapper and actor Sean "Diddy" Combs. Another is 5455 Wilshire Blvd, whose west-facing wall is covered with an advertisement for Sony's PlayStation.

Meanwhile, foes of supergraphics have accused McNeilly of attempting to use a patriotic symbol to secure a legal settlement that will allow him to put commercial advertising on buildings that never had them to begin with. McNeilly sued the city a decade ago over its efforts to remove a multistory, patriotic mural in Westwood.

He won a settlement in 2003 that allows commercial advertising on the building's west side -- a wall that currently displays an advertisement for the movie "Confessions of a Shopaholic."

"The history is, he takes out these patriotic signs so that he can eventually sell advertising," said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

McNeilly would not say how much money he makes from the supergraphic in Westwood, but he explained that advertisers were willing to pay up to $100,000 per month for a single, tarp-like supergraphic, depending on its size and location.

The supergraphic fight coincides with the city's larger effort to overhaul its outdoor advertising laws, launched after the city received more than a dozen legal challenges to a 2002 ban on new billboards. The city Planning Commission is scheduled to meet today to review a new ordinance that would ban digital billboards on a citywide basis but allow them in special sign districts, such as heavily trafficked, pedestrian-friendly entertainment areas.

The new ordinance was crafted largely as a response to the spread of new digital billboards -- the result of a 2006 legal settlement allowing hundreds of electronic signs. Companies that produce supergraphics say that under the U.S. Constitution, the city cannot prohibit one type of image while allowing others to go up.

While city planners drafted the new ordinance, the City Council approved a 90-day moratorium on all outdoor signs. But since that was approved, neighborhood activists say they have seen a dozen of McNeilly's Statue of Liberty images appear on buildings ranging from three to more than 12 stories.

A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office said city inspectors went to some of the addresses submitted by McNeilly and could not find any images. "Many, if not most of the locations in question, have no supergraphic," said Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez.

Still, SkyTag has already secured one victory, persuading U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins this week to order the city to stop enforcing certain sign laws at three locations with McNeilly's images -- 10921 Wilshire Blvd., 10203 Santa Monica Blvd. and 4929 Wilshire Blvd.

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