The home of Mike McNeilly is a museum of his artwork. There’s a bloody crucifix next to the driveway. The front-yard pond is decorated with dog skeletons. Inside, he displays acrylic statues of female figures and pop-art paintings against carefully lit white walls. McNeilly may still think of himself as an artist, but he’s best known as the president of Sky Tag, a supergraphics advertising company at war with the city of Los Angeles over the legality of Sky Tag’s gigantic building-side signs. McNeilly met with the Business Journal at his Beverly Hills home to discuss his childhood move from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, how he decided to stop painting and become a fashion photographer, his transformation into a megasign mogul and the charges he faces that expose him to millions of dollars in fines.
Question: How do you describe yourself – as an artist or businessman?
Answer: Artist. I’ve been an artist all my life.
But you’re not a starving artist.
I was. The only painting I ever sold was for $75, a seascape when I was 17 years old. It cost me $50 for materials, took me a month to paint, and I made a profit of $25. After that I said enough and started doing photography.
I realized I couldn’t make money as an artist. I did fashion photography for 30 years, taking photos that appeared on millions of catalog pages. Today a lot of my work is rotting in landfills.
Who did you photograph?
Back before Demi Moore and Sharon Stone were famous, I photographed them. I worked with a lot of famous models.
Was it a glamorous job?
I traveled around the country and to places like Fiji, Cancun and Europe. It seemed like it would be a great job, but after awhile it was pretty mundane.
Was there anything in your family background that gave a hint that you would become an artist?
No. Actually, when I was 7 years old I was torn between being an artist or a musician. My parents told me they didn’t have the money for piano lessons, so I became an artist by default.
What was your childhood like?
I’m an Okie. I was born in Oklahoma. We loaded up the pickup truck with a mattress and came to California when I was 6. My dad was a linotype operator for the Herald-Examiner. My mom was a secretary. They have both gone to their reward.
Do you have any siblings?
How far did you go in school?
I went to Los Angeles High School and later Fairfax High School. In 12th grade, I entered a work experience program at a photo studio. I ended up graduating at Fairfax Adult School in a ceremony with six senior citizens and myself.
How did you go from starving artist/photographer to living in Beverly Hills?
I was very successful as a photographer. I had about 20 people working for me and a 50,000-square-foot studio.
Why did you leave the photography business?
In the 1990s, the industry changed. The fashion companies hired in-house photographers. There used to be photo studios everywhere in Los Angeles; now there are only a handful. The entire industry just went away.
How did you react?
During my years as a photographer, I was painting these supermurals on buildings for free. I would get the building owner’s permission to paint a wall. My murals captured the imagination of the entertainment and fashion industries. They talked to building owners about putting up images for their big movies. The building owners told me, “Mike, we love your art but we need the revenue.”
So that’s why you formed Sky Tag in the early 1990s?
I formed it when the entertainment and fashion industry wanted to put up their images instead of my art.
Where did you get the name Sky Tag?
I have always been a tagger.
Did you actually put graffiti on buildings?
With the owner’s permission. Tagging, posting and supermurals. I respect private property. I think owners have the right to put up images on their property.
When did these supergraphics start to get you in legal trouble?
In the late 1990s, I was going to paint a mural in West Los Angeles overlooking the veterans cemetery for Memorial Day. (Los Angeles City Councilman) Mike Feuer sent police to arrest me for painting the Statue of Liberty. I couldn’t believe it. Even the police couldn’t believe it. That really started everything.
Politicians started using their discretion on content, and they shouldn’t. To get arrested for painting the Statue of Liberty in this country on Memorial Day – that’s outrageous.
Did you go to jail?
No, they didn’t arrest us. It was a case of “Put down that paintbrush or you’re going to jail.” After a couple hours of negotiation, we stopped painting.
Have supergraphics been controversial in the other cities where you work – Las Vegas and New York?
No. I’ve had the largest mural in New York on Park Avenue. The entertainment industry uses that space a lot and we’ve never had an issue. We painted a giant mural at the base of the Statue of Liberty for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and one of his environmental groups. Never any issues. In Las Vegas, I’ve never had any issues with the county or the city.
Why is Los Angeles different?
A few politicians in the city of Los Angeles have used it as an issue to help them get re-elected. Then those same politicians will turn around and approve signage for their pals.
How would you explain your core legal issue with the city of Los Angeles?
The city uses unfettered discretion. They grant permission to some property owners, and tell others they can’t. That’s unconstitutional. The building across the street can put something up, but you try to put something up and they say no. That’s not the way this country should operate.
What’s your side of the recent lawsuit filed by the city for 17 illegal supergraphics?
At the time, the city was using unfettered discretion in giving some owners permission to put up murals and not allowing others. Federal Judge (Audrey) Collins said that’s unconstitutional, you can’t cite property owners or sign companies. The city appealed to the Ninth Circuit. When the city prevailed, all my supergraphics came down. The city is alleging the supergraphics were illegal during a time the federal judge had an injunction against enforcement.
And you disagree?
We have the best locations in the city, and they were legal at the time, protected by a federal court injunction.
Are you worried about fines that the city’s press release states “could potentially total tens of millions of dollars”?
The politicians are trying to use the chilling effect. The threat of fines will make people hunker down and not use their free-speech rights. They’re using me and Sky Tag and property owners as examples. The chilling effect is my biggest concern.
Have advertisers shied away from Sky Tag?
No, the chilling effect hurts artists who want to do murals or property owners who might want art on their buildings. But the value of outdoor advertising has gone to the moon. The city has limited the inventory, so then obviously the price goes up.
What is your personal distinction between commercial and fine art?
I think a lot of the art produced by the entertainment industry could be in museums. Most Sky Tag clients have great art and it’s good to support it. With fine art it’s a fine line. Is Andy Warhol’s tomato soup can commercial or pop art? If you have a giant soup can on the wall, are you selling soup or is it a work of art? It’s hard to say.
When people say your art is a ruse that sets the stage for paid advertisements, what is your response?
Again, the property owners said I could put up artwork. If someone offers them revenue, it’s their discretion to take it.
Doesn’t Sky Tag take the revenue?
Sky Tag gets a small percentage. The property owners get the majority of it, as they should. Otherwise, some of these buildings might go into receivership. That revenue has helped the developers in this town. You can see that downtown around Staples Center, where the signage is helping to create these new projects.
How do you respond to those who say your supergraphics are a traffic hazard and aesthetic blight?
They are entitled to their opinion. But this is a city. It’s the entertainment capital of the world. I think supergraphics are good – they create vibrancy and excitement. Supergraphics support the main industry in the city – the entertainment industry. It brings in tourism. It’s a little crazy not to support that.
How have supergraphics helped other cities?
Look at what it did to Times Square in New York. It was dead, filled with porn stores. Then the city legalized digital signs and big graphics. Now it lights up the city and everyone seems to love it. Amazing.
In March, you put a referendum on the West Hollywood ballot to tax billboards. Why?
I’m not a big fan of billboards, believe it or not. I don’t own any and neither does Sky Tag. So I felt the people of West Hollywood should get a fair share of billboard revenue. The billboard business is making $60 million to $70 million a year in West Hollywood and the people get almost no money. I thought it was a fair proposition.
What about supergraphics?
It also covered supergraphics.
Why did it lose?
The so-called Neighbors Against Illegal Billboards, whose officers were executives at CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel, spent a lot of money to defeat it. They beat us.
Are you involved in other planning issues?
Not anymore. In the 1980s, I worked with the city of West Hollywood to develop the Sunset Specific Plan, which allows supergraphics on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. But once the big outdoor advertising companies got involved, I was sort of dismissed. Now when they have meetings about murals or signs, nobody contacts me even for public comments.
What’s the most memorable image you ever put on a building?
Back in the 1990s, there were a lot of news stories about kids getting killed accidentally with guns. I did a series of murals in Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and New York that showed 7-year-old children pointing a .44 magnum.
How do you spend a typical day?
Sky Tag might take eight hours, but it’s mixed in between working on my art. I work 12 to 16 hours a day, but it’s creative so I don’t consider it work.
Where is all this art, aside from the few items in your house?
I have the largest collection of McNeillys on the planet. (Laughs) It’s stored at other properties. It will probably be on “American Pickers” one day.
Do you try to sell your art?
No. The only time I’ve participated in a public exhibit was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it was for photography, not painting. It gives you more freedom with your art if you don’t have to follow the style that’s popular or commercial.
Why is there Christian iconography in your art?
Jesus has always been an important element in my artwork and religious thinking. He’s the best role model there is.
And the patriotic themes?
My father was a survivor on the U.S.S. Saratoga at Pearl Harbor. I believe in this country. And all Americans have the right to express their political opinion.
What’s your favorite movie?
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” with James Cagney. It conveys what America represents. As a child I watched it dozens of times. I still watch it.
If there is one work of art that you didn’t create but wished you had, what would it be?
The Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. But I would do it more cathedral sized instead of a chapel. In other words, I’d do it on a much larger scale.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to get into the supergraphics business?
I wouldn’t recommend it in the city of Los Angeles. I would advise you to try other cities like Miami, where the people have engaged street art.
COMPANY: Sky Tag Inc.
BORN: Oklahoma City; 1953.
EDUCATION: Fairfax Adult School
CAREER TURNING POINT: Decision to become a photographer at 17 and pursue painting as a hobby instead of a career.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Jesus, Pablo Picasso and Van Gogh.
PERSONAL: Single, never married, declined to state whether he has children; lives in a Beverly Hills house and at “a couple of other properties.” Has a beta fish, also known as a Siamese fighting fish, which can’t live among other fish because they try to kill each other. “I can relate to it,” he said.
ACTIVITIES: Creates art – statues, paintings, multimedia pieces.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.