Michael McNeilly claims that he's an artist, not a billboard magnate who cynically hides behind the 1st Amendment and lax Los Angeles regulations in order to make a pile of money on building-sized advertisements. And if you disagree, he'll happily wrap himself in the flag until you shut up.
McNeilly's latest brush with L.A. officials, and local headlines, happened this month when he filed court documents trying to block the city from removing signs from as many as 118 multistory buildings until federal judges have ruled on the city's latest attempt to regulate billboards. But McNeilly was a fixture on the signage scene long before now -- especially in Westwood, where his alternating "supergraphic" images on a Wilshire Boulevard building have been infuriating neighborhood activists for nearly a decade.
The Westwood fuss seems to have started in 1997, when McNeilly requested city permission to paint a billboard promoting a Disney movie on the building but was denied a permit. A little more than a year later, he was arrested for working without a permit while painting a giant mural of the Statue of Liberty on the building. McNeilly claimed that he was only exercising his free-speech rights, and he prevailed in court. Soon afterward, he replaced Lady Liberty with a giant advertisement for the Disney film "Pearl Harbor." And so it continued: After 9/11, he put up an image of a heroic New York firefighter, prompting a court fight in which McNeilly's rights were defended by the American Civil Liberties Union. He reached a settlement with the city in 2003 that allows commercial messages on the building, and now it sports an ad for the film "Confessions of a Shopaholic."
Art and commerce aren't incompatible, but in McNeilly's case they're indistinguishable; as L.A. officials try to enforce a moratorium on billboards, he's pulling his Statue of Liberty stunt on other buildings, daring the city to engage in another losing 1st Amendment battle. If the patriotic images should be replaced with movie ads after the legal dust has settled -- well, an artist's got a right to make a living, right?
To those who consider billboards a form of visual blight, McNeilly is an evil genius. But if he's the Blackbeard of billboard pirates, it's only because the city's attempts to blow him out of the water have been so inept. McNeilly doesn't even try to play his patriot games in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, which have strong anti-billboard ordinances and the personnel to enforce them. Unless Los Angeles borrows a page from them, neither McNeilly nor anyone else will take its new anti-billboard crusade seriously.