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Posted by Murals for Saint-Louistan on July 25, 2011 | 41 Comments

You may have heard the famous phrase “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …”.

“Not so fast!” say a group of St Louis Aldermen concerned with the beauty of our city.

According to Ordinance 66934, you may not have graffiti on your own property, even if you like it or you put it there yourself. Not only that; agents of the City may break into your property, paint it over, and send you a bill. Resist and you will be fined or go to jail. The matter gets worse if you consider how they define graffiti:

“Graffiti– Any unauthorized mark, inscription, word, figure, picture, notation or design drawn, written, etched, painted, sprayed, marked, posted, pasted or otherwise affixed, drawn, or painted on any surface of any building, public, private or personal property. Graffiti shall not mean a sign lawfully erected and maintained as required by other ordinances.”

So, you either put a sign (lawfully erected) or a graffiti (unauthorized). This seems to leave no room for public art and other nice perks that you get from the first amendment. Yet, the matter is murky since they never define “authorized”/”unauthorized”.

You should read the ordinance. It is definitely poorly written, but it is short and will get your blood going – and boiling.

But if you are not into that kind of prose, here are the most relevant parts.

Here it says you cannot have unauthorized “graffiti” on your own property even if you like it:

“It is unlawful for any person to maintain graffiti that has been placed upon, or allow graffiti to remain upon, any surface within that person’s control, possession or ownership when the graffiti is visible from a public street, public alley, other public right-of-way and other public property.”

Here it says that they can break into your house or place of business to “fix it” without even having a court order:

“Any person employed, or contracted with, for the abatement of a nuisance as provided for in this ordinance and any agent or employee of such person shall have the right of entry for that purpose into and upon any premises.”

And here it says they will send you the bill:

“The Forestry Commissioner shall bill the owners of any property on which the City abates a nuisance under this ordinance for the cost of such abatement.”

And, finally, here is where it says that you can go to jail or pay a fine if you refuse or in some way obstruct their wrongful behavior.

“Any person who shall violate provisions of this ordinance shall upon conviction thereof, be subject to a fine of not less than fifty dollars ($50.00) nor more than five hundred dollars ($500.00) or imprisonment for a term not to exceed ninety (90) days, or both, at the discretion of the Court.”

The good News

First, we are not in the Banana Republic of Saint-Louistan and we are all protected by the first amendment. Second, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled in favor of freedom of speech with respect to the “End Eminent Domain Abuse” mural near interstates 44 and 55. Third, though it will have to be modified in light of the court’s ruling, Section 26.68.020 of the zoning code which defines what is a sign and what is not, leaves room for many things that are not authorized but also not illegal such as “Works of art which in no way identify a product”. According to the code, you can have those without even having to get a permit.

Finally, the ordinance was created by our aldermen with the intention of protecting our built environment from unscrupulous graffiti and vandalism. They have gone a little too far, but very likely they’ll be open to listen to their constituents about this issue. In fact, alderman Ortmann has allowed the Cherokee Street Mural to stay after a lot of us said we didn’t want it painted over.

All this means that the ordinance can be modified or struck down with a bit of dedication and a lot of public discussion. The timing could not be better; their ears are open and our concerns are reasonable.

Your part

All you have to do is post your comments below, and spread the word.

Have you tried to make a mural and ran into trouble? Do you have ideas on how the ordinance should read? Do you know how to make our city more open to artistic and cultural expression? Do you think public art can help revitalize our city? Do you think the ordinance should stay as it is? Anything else?

Just say it.

It will go a long way.


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