Civil Liberties

Artifact: Liberty Undone


This unfinished portrait of the Statue of Liberty has been looking down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles since February 20, 1999. Envisioned by artist Mike McNeilly as a tribute to veterans, many of whom are buried in a nearby national cemetery, it has instead become a monument to threatened freedoms.

About six hours into the job, police shut McNeilly down, charging him with painting without a permit –a crime that carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for every day the mural has been up. His case was still pending in late March.

To issue a mural permit, the city requires the artist to get approval from the local city council member and a recognized community group. McNeilly, who had the building owner's permission, calls the permit process "blatantly unconstitutional," because it gives politicians veto power over mural content.

His opponents claim that content isn't the issue. Beauty has become the latest subject of local land-use regulation, and "supergraphics," from movie ads to murals, are Ground Zero in that battle.

"This is an issue of land use," says a spokesman for Councilman Mike Feuer. "It goes to the issue of whether you want a supergraphic over your house or near your place of business."