Any reason I shouldn't let people use my house as a canvas?
February 23, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

What is the legality of commissioning graffiti art for a residence?

Here in New Orleans we have lots of skinny shotgun houses with long flat sides exposed to the street. I've often fantasized that if I owned one I would commission some of the more talented graffiti artists who have done work in this area to adorn the side (for example, something like this piece from Reader). Aside from concerns that some jackass like Fred Radtke will come along and helpfully eradicate the art without my permission, are there legal concerns? I frequently see businesses with murals painted on the side, but never any residences. I'm assuming most of it boils down to the need to paint over the art before selling the home because you can't rest assured the next buyer will want that kind of display, as well as the fear that some other uninvited artist may see it as a target. However, maybe there are some city ordinances of which I am not aware that prohibit this sort of thing. Any insight into why this isn't done more?
posted by komara to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's going to be a question of both local zoning ordinances and covenants that are attached to the deed, e.g. homeowner associations and the like. Many municipalities prohibit this sort of thing in their code, and many developers incorporate such prohibitions in their deeds even when there's no law against it, because graffiti, even "artistic" graffiti, tends to drive down property values.

Or at least people think it does, which amounts to the same thing.
posted by valkyryn at 10:33 AM on February 23, 2012

The Bettie Page House in Seattle is much like what you're describing. You might get complaints from neighbors; if the city decides it's graffiti or vandalism, despite your consent, they may force you to take it down (or get you in a legal battle). Or it might not.
posted by 0xFCAF at 10:35 AM on February 23, 2012

You definitely need to track down your local ordinances. Where I live (LA) there has been a big scandal/fight over our stupid, outdated ordinances which basically make it very, very difficult to have a mural painted, even on private property. Here's a sad story about a mural that had to be whitewashed recently, to give you an example. (The only good thing to report is that the ordinances are being reconsidered.) Maybe start with your city council representative.
posted by BlahLaLa at 10:35 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Varies by municipality.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:48 AM on February 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

So I see here in New Orleans municipal code Sec. 54-151 b. 1. a. that graffiti by their definition implies something done without the building owner's consent. That would appear to mean that if a building owner sanctions the art then it is by definition not graffiti.

Sounds like that would be a slippery battle indeed, to show that consent was given before the art was created.

All of this is idle speculation; it's not like I own this property. It's just something I like to think about.

[apologies in advance if that code link doesn't work - can't tell if it's cookie-related or not]
posted by komara at 2:34 PM on February 23, 2012

What if you put up a very official-looking sign on the wall next to the mural like you would see in an art museum or on a historically significant building? The sign could explain that this is Art, not vandalism. You might also want to hang out with the deed handy during the painting process. If someone comes up and starts asking what this person is doing spray-painting your wall, you can explain that you are giving consent as the owner and encourage them to read your informative sign about the project.
posted by steinwald at 5:14 PM on February 23, 2012

Just a point of information: Here is a mefi post about a house (in France, former residence of Serge Gainsbourg) that is intentionally allowed to be covered in graffiti.

Apparently the neighbors don't like it much (the bit about the neighbors painting over the graffiti with yellow is on page 4).
posted by flug at 7:04 PM on February 23, 2012

Taking steinwald's idea further, you could ask your artist to first render a large stylized frame around whatever they're going to graffiti. If done well, say a large gilt ornate type frame, it could even be a nice ironic statement.
posted by werkzeuger at 7:05 PM on February 23, 2012

It actually may not matter whether it's technically "graffiti" or not. Ordinances and covenants sometimes just say that you can't paint your house in a way that deviates too strongly from the rest of the neighborhood. Like fluorescent orange. Not graffiti, but still probably not allowed.

For example, code enforcement might construe your mural as a "sign," and there are usually restrictions about the type, kind, size, and number of signs permitted in residential areas. Anything more than a nameplate and street number and things can start to get pretty questionable in many places.

And if you say that the graffiti is "art," well now you've arguably got an "art gallery," and there are restrictions on art galleries too. They're frequently categorized as "conditional uses" in residential areas, meaning that you need a permit before you can start one.

Those are just two examples.
posted by valkyryn at 5:39 AM on February 24, 2012

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