Artist Saeli Morales believes murals can beautify a community, bring life to a wall or business and replace graffiti that can scar buildings.
That was the possibility she imagined when she pitched the idea of creating a large painting of a colorful hummingbird buzzing around a flower on the side wall of Pioneer Market, at the corner of Brand Boulevard and Hollister Street in the City of San Fernando.
But the paint of the beautiful mural had not yet completely dried when the business decided to whitewash it after receiving a notice from City officials indicating the painting had been done without prior approval.
“I got kind of disappointed and angry. I feel they didn’t give me enough time to (solve the issue),” Morales said. “It was a lot of work. This was coming out of our pocket and we’re disappointed it got taken off. But I guess it’s just the policy.”
“I wanted something uplifting,” she adds of her mural, which had generated a lot of positive feedback on social media.
Eddie Hazim, owner of Pioneer Market, said he paid two people to paint over the mural after San Fernando officials asked him to remove it. He agreed to the request because he didn’t want to get in trouble with City, saying the landlord had received a notice from the City threatening the landlord with a fine.
Painting the Mural
In photos posted on her Instagram account, Morales is all smiles posing with her brother, Ely, after finishing the large, colorful art project.
The 23-year-old artist is just starting out and the mural was a labor of love for both she and her brother. It cost them $400 in paint and they spent five days working on it in their spare time before finishing it on Dec. 4.
That day, as they were putting the final touches on the mural, a Community Preservation Officer showed up and told them they had to stop because they had not asked for permission from anyone in the City, and they did not have the appropriate permit to do the painting.
Despite the warning, the siblings decided to finish the mural because of the work and money they had already invested in the project.
Several days later, Morales received a message from an Instagram fan telling her the mural had been removed.
A white wall and some patches of the light blue paint in the mural is all that remains of their work on the wall facing the drab parking lot.
“At first I was angry,” Ely said. “This was something to bring a vibrant level, that it’s going to bring life to the community.”
Morales and her brother admit they didn’t know they had to secure a permit before starting their work. Ely, who has painted other murals in South Los Angeles, says all he needed in that area was to get the business owner’s permission, so he didn’t think he needed anything else.
Hazim said he thought Morales and/or her brother had already gone to the City before starting on the project.
“Everybody said, ‘it looks nice,’” lamented Hazim. “Everybody liked it, everybody started taking pictures.”
City “Tried” to Save the Mural
Mayor Sylvia Ballin also thought the mural was “beautiful” and she said they tried to work with the market’s owner to resolve the issue instead of removing it.
The sticking point was securing the approval of the property owner for the mural. She said the City was even willing to waive the $130 permit fee.
“The business may lease the property, but we can’t give a (mural) permit unless we get (the property owner’s) signature,” Ballin said.
“We made every attempt to keep it up. I don’t know why he chose not to work with the City. We were disappointed they painted over it.”
Fernando Miranda, the officer who handled the case, added that no fine was assessed against the business and the City “did not remove” the art work.
“All parties, including the artist, the store manager, and the representative of the property owner were informed that murals require City approval under a program for Art Murals on Private Property, which has not yet become law,” Miranda said in an email.
New Mural Ordinance
After many years prohibiting public art works, the San Fernando City Council just approved an ordinance to allow them. But ordinances do not become law until after 30 days following the council’s decision.
The City will begin accepting applications for art murals the first week of January in 2021. The process will require applicants to submit an 11×17 color rendering of the proposed mural before the Parks, Wellness and Recreation Commission reviews it and approves it.
Miranda, via email, said, “My supervisor, Director of Community Development Timothy Hou, on Dec. 12 contacted the artist, Mr. Morales. My supervisor offered to waive any permit fees and assist the artist with the permit application and review process.”
Miranda also stated he told the Market owner “not to remove or paint over the mural until Mr. Morales gets the approval from the city,” and gave the artist city contact information “to further inquire as to the process needed for this mural project.”
Ely said the $130 fee and the process set up by the City allowing for murals may be too much for artists just starting out.
“It kind of kills the spirit of the beginner. They have to pay the fee, go buy the paint and deal with the permit process. It’s meant to shut people down, in a sense,” he opined.
That differs from his experience in South Los Angeles.
“Here, if the owner (of the property) says it’s fine, it’s good to go,” Ely said.
His sister shares the same opinion.
“It’s too much. A lot of artists, we’re trying to beautify the community. To make us pay, it doesn’t make sense,” Morales says.
She believes murals are meant to uplift properties and areas that sorely need it, and even help cover up graffiti.
“They’re meant to be inspirational to people. It’s better than to look at a blank wall,” she said.