As you bank down Santa Ana Blvd towards downtown, you flash by a tiny, peach hacienda whose garage door shouts colorful political statements. At least, it did until today.
Santa Ana artist Carlos Balam announced on Facebook to devastated artists, neighbors and fans: "today the city of Santa ana stop by my space to say that they received a complaint about my writing in the garage door "stop the war " n that I must erased it [sic]"
Over the last year, Balam's garage has established itself as a neighborhood focal point of revolving political slogans and art during this time of intense turmoil and tension. The most recent, and arguably most innocuous slogan, "Stop the War," received a complaint which prompted the City of Santa Ana to request Balam to "take it down" according to several Facebook posts made by him on May 18th.
Ironically, a black and white photograph of Balam's previous garage-adorning slogan, "Tell your Children They Can't Drink Oil," hung in the Bowers Museum just a few weeks ago in Federico Medina 's "Life and Culture in The Golden City", a public art show that was funded by the same city who now is asking Balam to censor his neighborhood garage murals.
This situation prompts some interesting questions like -- Who is Carlos Balam? Can he muralize his garage? and What are the roles of the City and public in this whole mess anyway?
Who is Carlos Balam?
The first time I met Carlos Balam, he was hanging out in front of his garage with an iguana perched on his shoulder, painting a memorial portrait like you'd see on Calle Cuatro during Noche de Altares.
Even though I was just walking by, and Balam was just standing in his driveway, the inviting space between a sunken ship and his front-yard banana tree prompted a conversation. "I'm painting this portrait in honor of a friend's Tio," Balam offered. "I painted the Lavanderia here on the corner too," Balam added, pointing to the seascape-covered coin laundry overshadowing his casita and art studio.
I adore the Lavanderia and was moved as Balam pointed-out kernels of neighborhood history captured in the Lavanderia mural: everything in it is a symbol. "See this fish?" he said, pointing to an oddly-colored carp, "a kid in the neighborhood was from Germany, so he painted this fish Germany's flag colors."
The garage door erasure comes on the heels of another incursion of Balam's self-directed neighborhood beautification efforts: the Lavanderia was sold recently and parts of Balam's mural suddenly disappeared. You can see a missing panel on Santa Ana Blvd. and a green parrot, a familiar symbol of Santa Ana, now floats frozen halfway between startled surprise and stuccoed oblivion.
However, Balam is most famous for his magnum opus several blocks away in the Logan neighborhood on the side of a liquor store near La Chiquita restaurant. This mural honors Latino veteran heroes from the neighborhood, among them Sam Romero who famously requested to be painted "...high up so the dogs don't urinate on my head." Balam gives speeches and tours here on veteran days of remembrance as a sort of volunteer community storyteller. As the keeper of this community's death toll and contributions to war, you start to understand the plea on Balam's garage is more thoughtful and sincere than a passerby might first surmise.
Can Balam muralize his garage?
Since the City of Santa Ana doesn't have a specific ordinance tackling murals, one might look to the City's On-Premise Signs Codes or Sign Regulations to dictate what types of writing and graphics are permissible on structures like garages. This stringent document creates orderly commercial districts and neighborhoods, but there are two problems when applying it here:
(1) Balam's hacienda art studio demarcates the wild mixed-use outskirts of downtown where a little nonconformity is a comforting sentry of neighborhood authenticity, connectivity and flavor.
(2) The City's sign regulations and codes are being flagrantly violated every which way across Santa Ana by like everyone and their mother (from taco trucks to brick-and-mortar businesses to city-supported non-profit institutions). So, the enforcement here is definitely grey-area enough to request a deeper review by fans and friends of art, self-expression and neighborhood character.
What is the City, Balam's and the Public's role?
The City's role here is pretty simple: their approach to private property murals is to enforce based on complaints. At least one person complained about the "Stop the War" mural and so the City showed up and applied the bureaucratic indifference of the law on the books. Further review could be prompted by the appeals of supporters of Balam's mural and possibly, changes to how Balam approaches his mural-making (see below).
Balam has complied with the City's request and painted over his garage (for now, at least). From my own surmising, he has a few choices moving forward:
(1) he could quietly review the city's sign rules and create a work that complies, which may require a work that evades controversy, and hence doesn't draw complaints
(3) he could counter the complaint(s) the City received with letters of support and request a further review of his situation by the Arts Commission, high-level planning department staff and/or his City Council representative
(3) he could help champion a mural ordinance or adjustment to the sign ordinance that clarifies and enhances his and others' abilities to create private property murals
"Who is saying they are going to erase it? Were u cited? Please don't erase it." urged City of Santa Ana Arts Commission Vice Chair Sandra Pocha Pena on Balam's Facebook post.
It's clear that while Balam's garage had its critic(s), it also has its champions:
"That SUCKS," remarked another Santa Ana muralist, "Damn, Really!!!" exclaimed another on the post.
Hopefully, these supporters will write letters to counter the complaint filed with the city and provoke a review from higher-ups at the planning department or by the Arts Commission or City Council.
Carlos Balam has been talking for some time about his next mural: it's about a Latino astronaut meant to show the kids of Santa Ana they can do anything.
As for Santa Ana murals in general, a bigger discussion on murals has been lingering for a long time and might be taken up by artists as several great evolutions have occurred:
With all of this great energy, we're sure to see more murals, more public discussion and more support and clearer guidelines articulated. The writing is on the wall.
Story by Ryan Smolar