What could stop a committed group of organizations from painting the mural that they designed months ago to raise awareness of food insecurity and food resources in Somerville?  Well…

1. It seems that store owners are worried about having murals on their walls.  They’re responsible for cleaning off any graffiti from their buildings and murals are more complicated to clean or repaint than an empty wall.  Even with the promise of exemptions and an anti-graffiti spray they’re nervous.

2. Some people feel like murals are a sign of a struggling neighborhood.

3. It’s illegal to paint a mural without getting permission. We think.  None of the many city entities that are members of the coalition are sure what the official approval process entails. As we’ve tried to navigate the permitting we continue to hear about more unexpected requirements.

4. The city thinks that murals with words on them are “signs,” so they have to be approved as signs (which requires a permit hearing at very full once-a-month meetings and permit fees that are well beyond what a community coalition can afford)

There seem to be two ways to approach this.  One is to paint without asking permission of anyone but the building owner, the approach that one well-respected local muralist has taken for decades. Another is to try to change the perception or the legal standing of murals.  It seems that Los Angeles has been struggling with similar issues for years and only recently succeeded in passing a mural ordinance that makes murals “no longer a crime or a sign“.  It’s taken them 11 years and the help of a lawyer.

In the meantime, Somerville is actually quite supportive of murals that are already painted, and the food security coalition will paint its mural on fabric, to be hung temporarily at events next year.  I have learned my lesson about not designing a mural without having official permission to paint a wall.

Below is the design that will someday be painted, including data about food insecurity, local resources and a link to a food security website:

oval version