Dennis 'The Venice' Swift (left) describes his handmade merchandise to people on the Venice boardwalk on Friday afternoon. Swift and other merchants feel that the influx of cheep, non handmade items degrades the atmosphere that is the Venice boardwalk. (photo by Brandon Wise)

VENICE BEACH — The Venice Beach boardwalk has a history of eclecticism with merchants hawking handmade goods and street performers speaking out in the name of political activism, but a group of local artists is now protesting what they say is a loss of the strip’s originality.

This Saturday at 9 a.m. these artists plan to parade along Oceanfront Walk with trolleys of their artwork to speak out against what they are calling loopholes in the weekly lottery process that assigns merchants and performers spaces along the pedestrian street.

They believe that the lottery allows vendors to cheat their way into spots each week to sell commercial items with little original value.

“It’s so ludicrous and we all stand here and shake our heads,” said artist Michael Oddo, who organized the Saturday protest.

All merchants or performers who want an assigned spot on the boardwalk enter a weekly lottery that occurs Tuesday mornings. The lottery assigns about 100 P-Zone spots — for people who perform or distribute expressive information such as buttons, pamphlets or stickers — and 100 I-Zone spots for merchants selling handmade goods or items inextricably intertwined with a spiritual, religious or political message.

The lottery has become increasingly competitive over the years, with as many as 300 merchants vying for a spot each week.

But Oddo and other artists are complaining that permit holders are using unfair and illegal methods of obtaining lottery spots, including purchasing spots or enlisting family members and friends to enter the lottery to increase the chances of being selected.

“We have a battalion of homeless making money by selling permits,” Oddo said.

He explained that Venice Beach Parks and Recreation gives lottery spots to vendors who don’t have seller’s permits issued by the California State Board of Equalization. This means they cannot legally sell merchandise along the boardwalk and will instead sell their lottery space to merchants who did not win spots.

City officials, however, say they cannot limit who enters the lottery system each week and that it’s up to the police to enforce the permits along Oceanfront Walk.

“There’s nothing in our rules currently that prohibits us from withholding entering someone into the lottery,” said Victor Jauregui, who heads the Parks Department station in Venice and oversees the weekly lottery. “My hands are tied.”

The selling or giving away of lottery spots is directly in violation of the boardwalk ordinances but it occurred openly during last Tuesday’s lottery. Jauregui said he tries to enforce this law but it’s difficult to catch everyone.

“We know that it’s going on, but it’s like anything else. Unless we see it ourselves, there’s nothing we can do,” he said.

By rigging the lottery, merchants are indirectly affecting other merchants’ chances of winning a spot each week. Take, for instance, Reza Kassai.

“I’ve been shut out eight weeks in a row. I just got called,” said Kassai, who has been forced to pay entry fees to expensive art parks and exhibitions to continue selling his work.

But even when the artists win one of those coveted spots along the boardwalk, they aren’t guaranteed a successful day. They now have to compete with merchants who sell mass-produced items such as necklaces or lighters.

“I just came back after five years and I’m horrified that there are so few artists down here,” said painter Martha C. Wilson. “It’s just turned into a flea market.”

Merchants are allowed to sell manufactured goods as long as they are associated with a message, but the artists say that religious symbols are often hastily slapped onto an item so they appear to comply with the ordinance.

“It’s handmade art, by me, that’s what we’re fighting for,” said Michael Turner, who is known as the “Heart Man” for his carved paintings and spray painted stencils of hearts.

He suggested creating a jury of artists and boardwalk old-timers to review all of the merchandise sold and determine its artistic value or the validity of its message.

Jauregui, however, said that any limits on merchandise sold would violate vendors’ rights to freedom of speech.

“Once those symbols are attached to the jewelry, there’s nothing I or the police can do to them,” he said. “I do understand the frustration of the true artists who are out there making their stuff, but that’s the ordinance handed down to us by the federal court.”

For tourists and shoppers who visit the boardwalk, the range of items — from plastic gadgets to hand-crafted bracelets — is what gives Venice its charm.

“We just want to experience everything you hear about Venice — the free spirit,” said Sandy Harrison, a visitor from the East Coast.

Marcedes Suvia, from Bakersfield, said she likes the variety along the boardwalk, which is why she brings her foreign exchange students to Venice each year.

“They’re not familiar with vendors out like this, it’s something new to them,” she said.

But the artists say that these merchants take away from the boardwalk’s original intent, to give artists and performers a place to express themselves.

“We’re asking to be a part of something that belongs to us, that was ours,” said painter James Matter. “We just want to paint.”

Jauregui, too, understands that the environment along Oceanfront Walk has changed.

“We’re in times now where people are looking to survive,” he said. “The artists feel it’s no longer an artists zone, it’s a survive zone. We do the best we can to eliminate those individuals.”

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