Orlando reconsiders its love for murals

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Murals are popping up all over the city. Artists like Andrew Spear and Boy Kong are becoming household names as their work begins to creep over any flat surface in town. Main Street Districts have been tasked by City Hall with branding their neighborhoods with a variety of public art pieces – electric boxes, brick walls and soon even garbage dumpsters will be gussied up by local artists, all in the effort to live up to the name “The City Beautiful.”

However, Orlando may have hit a snag. Last week during an Orlando Main Street training session at the Venue, Pauline Eaton, economic development coordinator and Main Street coordinator for the city of Orlando, revealed that the city was rethinking its stance on murals. Up until recently there wasn’t much on the books for regulating art on private property. Murals, as works of art, are generally protected under First Amendment rights and freedom of speech, and city officials don’t often intervene unless there are safety concerns or complaints from the public. The Public Art Advisory Board, made up of members of the community, was founded to curate art for the city that would be placed on public property and bought with public funds. They can take the heat off city officials when members of the public ultimately start grumbling, but that’s public art, and what we’re talking about is art on private property. With the recent upswing in new murals being painted around the city, the planning and code enforcement divisions are starting to panic and have begun thinking about labeling all murals as signs in an effort to stem the paint tide.

Will’s Pub recently hired local artist Dolla Short to paint a mural on the side of their popular bar on Mills Avenue. The subject of the mural is a drunk satyr farting a noxious cloud, complete with a little skull. It has neighbors up in arms and complaining to code enforcement, labeling it crude and offensive. Yet the wall is private property, not a sign – and as such is outside of code enforcement’s jurisdiction. The hands of the city are tied and that’s not a comfortable place to be, especially if the growing trend is for more and more private murals.

Every business in Orlando is given a specific sign-sizing allotment depending on the size of their building’s facade – about 1 foot for every 2 feet of frontage. The smaller the shop, the smaller the sign and vice versa. So usually a mural is larger than the allotment and is out of the question.

Back in 2002, Central Communication Network painted a mural downtown depicting eagles and a cell phone to commemorate 9/11. The city said they wouldn’t need a permit if it wasn’t a sign, but by including an image of the product that they sell in the design (a phone), the permitting department believed, they had stepped into the realm of advertising. And you need a permit for that, majestic eagle or no. According to city spokeswoman Heather Fagan, the imagery in a mural cannot hint at what the business does and must be completely unrelated in order to be classified as art.

As of right now, officials are thinking that anything with text qualifies as a sign. Some people, like Eaton, are suggesting an allowance for a certain percentage of text rather than an outright ban, but she’s unsure as to what council members will vote for.

We’re still in the early stages of the discussion, and city officials aren’t ready to open it up to public debate as of yet, but when they are you can bet people will have a lot to say. They’ve called for all of this creativity, and now they’re dealing with the unforeseen consequences.


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