Brendan Dare works on painting a 50-foot fence next to the Otsego Street… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Longtime artist Barbara Black didn't reach for her paintbrush when she decided a mural would brighten her Valley Village home.
Instead, she contacted the art department at nearby North Hollywood High School and invited students to decorate the 50-foot alley wall next to her Otsego Street residence.
Black asked the young artists to bring their ideas, and, because she is on a fixed income, to bring their own paint as well.
They were happy to oblige.
"It's hard to find a place to work where you're not doing it illegally," said Anthony Zapada Green, 19, who hopes to become a professional graphic artist.
He and several other budding young artists from the area spent days spray-painting fanciful swirls and bold swaths of color along the wooden fence.
Before they even finished, however, Black received a city citation for $356.16 and an order to paint over the young painters' work.
Apparently reacting to a neighbor's complaint, a Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety inspector had spied what looked like huge, stylized letters spelling out a single, random word — "like" — at one end of the mural. And that turned the artwork into an advertising sign, something that's illegal in Black's residential zone, officials said.
Black, a retired costume illustrator for film and television who has lived in her home 42 years, said she got the idea for the wall mural after reading a January article in The Times about a backyard fence mural painted by 94-year-old Mid-City resident Erma Winfield.
Unlike Winfield's wall, Black's faces the alley. So she checked with authorities before commissioning the alley artwork.
"I called the North Hollywood police station and told them I had a wall I wanted to paint. They said if it's my wall and on my property I can paint it," she said. "They said just don't put anything pornographic or lewd on it."
It was Green who included the offending word in the mural. He was somewhat vague when asked why he did it. "I put 'like' in because it's a word that has a lot to it," he said.
Green said he was taken aback when the city labeled the mural a sign and issued Black a citation. "It was disrespectful" — both to Black and to the artists, Green said.
The painters described their work as "aerosol art," not graffiti.
"Graffiti is vandalism without the consent of the property's owner," explained Alexander Maxwell Gamboa, a 24-year-old art and business student at Valley College. "I don't see letters on the wall here. I see surrealism. This is a form of expression."
The artists said passersby using the alley have complimented them, although one man who drove past flashed a thumbs down.
The Feb. 22 citation sent Black and her young artists scrambling to repaint the mural.
This time around, the squad of painters is trying to make certain that none of their colorful designs even inadvertently spell out any words.
Green shrugged when an onlooker remarked that a swirl in the new mural resembled the letter M.
"You're always going to come out with lines that look like letters. A single line straight down is an I or an L, Green said. Nonetheless, he applied a spurt of spray paint to alter the stray letter.
When the mural is complete, its various sections will be set off by painted "frames" to underscore that those involved view it as art, according to Black. "Going down the alley will be like a stroll through a gallery," she said.
The alley fence project has the support of the NoHo Arts District. Also in support is the NoHo Arts Center for New Thought, a religious organization that Black belongs to that has donated $356 to cover her city citation.
But it remains unclear whether merely painting over any letters in the mural will satisfy Building and Safety officials, who have given Black a Thursday deadline to comply with their order. The fine will escalate to $1,925 if she does not, the officials said.
Department spokesman David Lara said converting the alleged alley "sign" into a mural by removing wording on it will not make the artwork legal because new wall murals are no longer allowed in the city.
The city is "looking into a policy change" that would once again allow murals, however, and Black will have an opportunity to file an appeal that would delay enforcement action, Lara said. But it is unknown when, or if, officials will act to relax the mural ban, he said.
Black's is not the only mural that might be in legal limbo.
At the nearby Studio City Hand Car Wash, a 75-foot wall painting depicting many of the community's "historical institutions" remains in place three years after being declared illegal by the city. Words on the mural have been removed, and a covering obscured it until a recent windstorm ripped it down, said Jack McGrath, a publicist who promoted the original painting.
Valley Village officials have distanced themselves from Black's wall. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, who represents the area, has not taken a position on the dispute, although he feels "the restriction on murals is onerous and needs to be changed," a spokesman said.
Tony Braswell, president of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village, said his group is being "very careful to respect both sides" of the issue. He suggested, however, that Black's artwork "is not reflective of the community."
Artist Alex Perez said the tools used on the mural may have played a key role in the controversy.
He said his mural panel depicts the colorful symmetry of koi fish swimming. He plans to include a photo of it in a portfolio he is preparing to submit to an art school.
"The spray can is the issue. I could do this same thing with a brush and nobody would say anything," Perez, 24, said. "People relate spray cans with vandalism."