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great walls, vibrant voices.


Los Angeles, California--purveyor of pop culture, incubator of trends, entertainment epicenter--has appropriated yet another title: The Mural Capital of the World.

More than fifteen hundred murals enliven walls in shopping and entertainment districts, barrios, and beach towns, interpreting past, present, and idealized future in colors both dazzling and faded by the L.A. sun. Eastside, Westside, from the valleys to Long Beach, bigger-than-life Hollywood celebrities stare from high-rise buildings; whales swim endlessly through beachside seascapes; pre-Columbian symbols conjure ancient rituals; and Che Guevara declares, "We are not a minority!"

Though the city enjoys a growing reputation as a fine arts center, L.A.'s multitude of murals owes little to new museums and crowd-pleasing exhibitions. Rather, they spring from another source: the people whose voice is rarely heard, the ordinary folk who seldom see themselves represented in museum collections. Robin Dunitz, author of Street Gallery: A Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals, says that every Los Angeles neighborhood has its murals, though some are more accessible than others. Beverly Hills tends to keep its indoors.

Not so East Los Angeles, where murals are meant to be seen, and where grassroots energy transforms housing projects, schools, markets, and garages into an enormous outdoor gallery. A drive down any major street in this Latin American enclave turns up scenes of Aztec warriors and Mexican revolutionaries, civil rights leaders and religious icons, and poignant memorials to youths killed in gang violence.

It was the vibrant Chicano murals of East L.A. that first marked Los Angeles as a center of the art form that predates history. Wall paintings recall the government WPA (Works Project Administration) murals of the 1930s, the frescoes of Italian Renaissance masters, and ultimately, if one goes back far enough, drawings of hunters and prey in prehistoric caves. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s provided the impetus for Chicano murals. Influenced by the Black Power movement, student activists joined farmworkers, urban laborers, and indigenous leaders in a search for cultural identity. In the tradition of the great Mexican muralists, outdoor art became a vehicle for communication and education, and public murals became a community affair, with whole neighborhoods involved in their execution.

Drawing inspiration from the powerful murals of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Chicano muralists adopted mythic Mexican symbols to evoke cultural pride. Like Los Tres Grandes, they eschewed subtlety in favor of bold colors and strong images. But although the Chicano mural movement had its roots in the celebrated Mexican murals, like so many imported traditions, it has taken on a peculiarly Southern California flavor. For one thing, notes art historian Marcos Sanchez, "In Mexico, Siqueiros and Orozco and Rivera painted murals in sanctioned interior spaces. Even if it was an enclosed courtyard, they were always protected. But Chicano murals go up on the sides of bakeries and stores, in alleys, housing projects--places that have very little social status."

In 1930 Orozco painted a powerful Prometheus indoors at Pomona College in nearby Claremont, adhering to the Mexican tradition. But Siqueiros took a different tack, painting his 1932 America Tropical outside, overlooking Olvera Street. His use of a "team" approach also foreshadowed the later Chicano murals. Irate sponsors whitewashed Siqueiros's painting for its implicit attack on capitalism. However, several other murals from the Depression era, mostly noncontroversial historical landscapes, still decorate Los Angeles schools and post offices.

One of the early venues for Chicano murals was Estrada Courts, a housing development in East Los Angeles. Invited to paint a few murals there in 1974, Charles "Gato" Felix enlisted the help of fellow artists as well as gang members and other youth. The crew embarked on a project that was to flourish for five years, creating no less than fifty exuberant murals and drawing international attention. Early innovators included David Botello and Wayne Healy, later joined by George Yepes and known collectively as the East Los Streetscapers. Also in the vanguard of Chicano artists were "Los Four"--Gilbert Lujan, Carlos Almaraz, Roberto de la Rocha, and Frank Romero. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited examples of their murals as early as 1974.

Just as the Black Power movement sparked an explosion of Chicano murals, African-American artists turned to the Mexican muralists as well as to African motifs for their artistic inspiration. "When I saw my first murals in East L.A.," says African-American artist Elliott Pinkney, "I was impressed. I started studying ... The Mexican Muralists [by Alma Marie Reed]. That became my textbook." Pinkney and fellow artist Richard Wyatt have been instrumental in documenting the African-American experience in Los Angeles.

Taking a cue from Latin- and African-American murals, other ethnic groups have made their own artistic statements on the walls of Los Angeles. Jewish murals document the beginnings of local Jewish history in Los Angeles, from East L.A. to the Westside. Likewise, L.A.'s Asian and Pacific Rim cultures have increasingly turned to mural art as a way to honor their traditions and announce their presence in Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and Thai and Filipino neighborhoods.

A driving force behind L.A.'s dynamic murals scene is arts activist Judith Francisca Baca. The muralist and UCLA professor founded SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), which has undertaken the creation and maintenance of major murals produced in and around Los Angeles since 1976. The genius of Baca's vision is that L.A.'s disparate communities need to be brought together, not only as the subject of murals but in their actual production.

If a single mural epitomizes Los Angeles, it's Baca's Great Wall of Los Angeles. After consulting with scholars, Baca assembled a team of artists that included Isabel Castro, Yreina Cervantez, Judith Hernandez, Olga Muniz, Patssi Valdez, Margaret Garcia, and SPARC co-founder Christina Schlesinger. Over a period of six summers, beginning in 1976, Baca and her teams of artists, support staff, and four hundred youths from a variety of backgrounds painted a series of historical scenes that covers one-half mile--six city blocks--of a drainage ditch in the San Fernando Valley. The mural details the history of California from prehistoric times to post-World War II as seen through the eyes of women and minorities. In its portrayal of the contributions and struggles of the many groups who have settled California, scenes of dust-bowl refugees and deportations of Mexican Americans take their place next to the birth of rock and roll and the development of suburbia. An important component of the program is the educational and cross-cultural training afforded the young "mural makers," whose names are interspersed among the panels.

Based on the model of the Great Wall, Baca embarked on another ambitious project in conjunction with the City of Los Angeles: "Great Walls Unlimited: Neighborhood Pride." This time young people joined artists in creating murals throughout the city, beautifying neighborhoods as they fostered pride in ethnically diverse communities. The program flourished from 1988 to 1995.

Community participation is key to both the creation and survival of Los Angeles's murals. SPARC encourages works that, in Baca's words, "rise from within communities rather than works that are imposed upon them." Despite sometimes daunting conditions involving gang territory and police intervention, SPARC insists on polling the community before beginning a mural. "The most intensive work is organizing the community and hiring the young people," Baca says.

SPARC is headquartered in a 1929 building that once served as the Venice Police Station and City Jail. The Art Deco building, which houses workshops and studios as well as a gallery converted from the original cell block, often serves as the starting point for tours of the city's murals. So varied is the art form that mural tours are organized around not only ethnic groups or geographic locations, but themes such as women muralists or interpretations of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the image most revered by people of Mexican heritage on both sides of the border.

Another group that sponsors mural tours is the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a volunteer organization dedicated to documenting and monitoring L.A.'s growing legacy of murals. Often led by local artists, Mural Conservancy tours sometimes center on the murals of a single artist, like Kent Twitchell, whose Freeway Lady became a cause celebre when the building owner painted over it. On a recent tour of East L.A. murals led by Paul Botello, art instructor Betsy Jager observed that the tours offer "a new and positive cultural experience" to people unfamiliar with the area.

"Mexican Americans have a heritage that needs to be seen by the mainstream," says Botello, "not just the Aztecs, and not just the lowriders, but the everyday people--doctors, teachers, coaches, fast-food workers." Botello's current project, on the wall of a massive gymnasium, is called Inner Resources, a reference to the strengths of the community as well as a plea to youth to draw on their own inner resources.

Whereas in other art forms the audience views only the finished product, in the production of murals the audience sees the entire process. "There are critics from the newspapers and critics from the streets; you have to be sensitive to your audience--and to your heart," says Botello, who got his start assisting older brother and pioneer muralist David Botello. Acknowledging that debt, he adds, "We always have a budget set aside for kids. We pay them minimum wage and give them a chance to learn and pass on the legacy."

Downtown, the Victor Clothing Company building serves as a canvas for several well-known artists. Eloy Torrez's colossal Pope of Broadway (a dancing Anthony Quinn) stops pedestrians in their tracks. Kent Twitchell's Bride and Groom likewise encompasses several stories, and Frank Romero's galloping horse and rider, Nino y Caballo, mesmerizes viewers. In El Nuevo Fuego, the East Los Streetscapers spotlight modern Olympic athletes as they recall ancient torch-lighting ceremonies. Inside the store, The Broadway Mural, by John Valadez, reflects the bustling shopping street outside, where Johanna Poethig's Calle de la Eternidad draws on pre-Columbian symbols to connect the Latin American neighborhood to its past.

Francisco Letelier employs a similar device in his murals for a mid-city metro station: The Chilean-born artist incorporated the Teotihuacan pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in an urban immigrant setting.

In Hollywood, images of movie legends, jazz greats, and cartoon characters kindle nostalgia. Beach-themed fantasies characterize the murals along the Venice broadwalk, notably Rip Cronk's whimsical Venice Reconstituted, a roller-skating version of Botticelli's Venus.

Mony of L.A.'s best known murals revolve around a monumental event--the bicentennial of the founding of the city, or the 1984 Olympics, or the 1994 World Cup soccer matches. As street murals have gained acceptance, their impact is credited with engendering an upsurge in the commissioning of public art by government agencies, such as the "Percent for Art" programs in cities across the U.S.

But Baca sees a downside to such programs. As politicians and bureaucrats take control, she blames a "business mentality" for distancing public art from its grass-roots vitality. "Public art in America has taken a shift; it's basically becoming decorative," she says. "They've reduced the community process to censorship. The Great Wall, for example, could not be done today."

If it were being painted for the first time today, Siqueiros's mural might meet an equally hostile reception. But in 1998 Alessandra Moctezuma and the late artist and author Eva Cockcroft incorporated a replica of Siqueiros's America Tropical in their painting, Homage to Siqueiros/Homenaje a Siqueiros. The mural fills a second-story space on the Self-Help Graphics building overlooking Cesar Chavez Avenue, a serendipitous choice of venue for its importance to community artists.

Judith Baca took her murals on the road in 1990, when she developed "World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear." The series of seven portable mural panels advocating global peace has been exhibited in Finland, Russia, Washington, D.C., and Mexico City. At each stop, local artists have been invited to contribute a panel on the theme of world peace. When intractable animosities made it impossible to implement the project in Israel, Palestinian and Israeli artists traveled to Monterey, California, to cooperate on a joint mural. Recently, muralists Marta Ramirez and Patricia Belkins completed the Mexican panel, commuting between Mexico City and Cuernavaca to effect the collaboration. Their contribution marks a full circle in the evolution of modern murals; Mexican artists, says Baca, now look to the U.S. as the keeper of the form.

Muralists have been as creative in their use of materials as they have in their use of space. Sophisticated themes are rendered in materials ranging from ceramic tile to acrylic and enamel and even house paint. Aerosol art, though not universally admired, has become part of the murals tradition.

Unfortunately, some of the early murals have been lost--to the wrecking ball, earthquakes, vandalism, and to the effects of pollution and weathering--a natural occurrence, some say, given the ephemeral nature of such art. Kent Twitchell's Freeway Lady has been restored, but its defacement illustrates the vulnerability of the murals and raises complex issues of ownership, particularly when a property changes hands.

Though graffiti poses a continuing challenge, its removal has of late constituted an even greater threat. Frank Romero's Going to the Olympics suffered near obliteration when zealous anti-graffiti crews painted out most of the mural as well as the graffiti. After two such attacks on his seminal 1972 work, The Wall that Cracked Open, Willie Herron covered most of the remaining mural with plywood. Herron had executed the work, which incorporates graffiti as part of its design, as a response to the brutal gang-beating of his brother.

SPARC has addressed the problem by bringing artists together to articulate a policy that is, in the words of Marcos Sanchez, "artist based rather than agency based." As a result, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has instructed the director of public works to develop a policy to "guarantee the preservation of murals when removing graffiti."

Meanwhile, Herron has received a commission to restore his mural. Still unresolved are other issues such as the granting of mural restoration contracts to conservators based on bids, a scenario that could cost artists the right to restore their own work. And the big question: Who decides which murals will be saved?

Cutting-edge technology now drives mural design in the Cesar Chavez digital laboratory that SPARC runs jointly with UCLA. "For a form to stay alive it must change and advance," says Baca. "We'll be able to print on much more permanent materials and lower the cost. We're addressing permanence and archival concerns through the work of digital imaging." Baca has transported her twenty-first century techniques to Denver, where she's currently completing an installation for the Denver Airport: La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, a first-time-ever digital transfer to aluminum that commemorates the story of the Hispanics of the Southwest. Back at the UCLA-SPARC lab, two of her digitally designed murals await installation in the visitors' center that will open when the Siqueiros mural is again accessible to the public.

Some observers put the number of Los Angeles murals at two thousand, or even twenty-five hundred. Planet Ocean, on the Long Beach Arena, ranks as the world's largest mural, while Baca's Great Wall is undoubtedly the longest. Ultimately, their impact comes not from their size or celebrity, but from what murals tell us about the neighborhoods that spawn them. Murals historian Dunitz believes that "murals educate people about what kinds of things the members of a particular community care about. If you get off the freeways and go into these neighborhoods and see the murals you get a sense of the diversity of Los Angeles and the aspirations of its people."

Today public art in Los Angeles draws on the energy and creativity of artists from across the entire spectrum of society; their murals mirror the scale and variety of the sprawling metropolis itself. Political machinations and economic pressures notwithstanding, Los Angeles, with its penchant for self-promotion, its love of the flamboyant, and most of all, the creative mix of cultures that make up its population, lives up to its billing as "the mural capital of the world."

RELATED ARTICLE: los angeles tropical

"We repudiate so-called easel art and all such art which springs from ultra-intellectual circles, for it is essentially aristocratic. We hail the monumental expression of art because such art is public property." Such sentiments alone might have qualified David Alfaro Siqueiros as the prophet of the Chicano mural movement. But the acclaimed Mexican muralist left a more concrete legacy to future Los Angeles muralists: America Tropical, a prototypical masterpiece that gained notoriety even as it was hidden from view.

In 1932 Siqueiros was invited to paint an exterior mural on the second floor roof garden of the Italian Hall, overlooking historic Olvera Street. It was his first outdoor mural, to be painted by airbrush directly on cement, with the help of a group of local artists. The title had been suggested by the director of the Plaza Art Center, one of the sponsors of the project, probably to complement the Mexican-themed shopping street. But Siqueiros signaled his subversive intentions early on when he wrote to an artist friend, "It has been asked that I paint something related to tropical America, possibly thinking that this new theme would give no margin to create a work of revolutionary character. On the contrary ... there couldn't be a better theme to use."

Siqueiros and his team worked diligently on the sixteen feet high by eighty feet long mural from mid-August until September 8, when only the central panel remained incomplete. Then the artist is said to have dismissed his assistants and worked through the night to complete the principal figure himself.

The unveiling caused a sensation. Assembled dignitaries beheld a crucified Mexican Indian under the talons of an American eagle, both superimposed on a pre-Conquest temple. In the upper right comer, two Latin American revolutionaries readied their arms. It was an altogether unacceptable image of American imperialism to the business and political leaders of the day. Outraged sponsors ordered the portion visible from the street painted over; later they had the whole mural whitewashed.

Ironically, the coat of white paint helped to protect the offending mural against sun, smog, and rain. But by the 1960s, when the outer layer began to peel off, it was apparent that Siqueiros's work was suffering from exposure to the elements. Various proposals have been advanced over the years to restore the once-controversial mural, but a shortage of funds combined with bureaucratic inertia repeatedly delayed the work.

In recent years the Getty Conservation Institute, a branch of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has joined forces with other agencies (the City of Los Angeles, private sources, and the National Endowment for the Arts) in an effort to save the painting. The project will include a protective shelter, a viewing platform, and an exhibition inside the building known as the Sepulveda House. Since the institute opts for conservation rather than restoration, though, the original vivid colors of Siqueiros's work may be lost forever. But viewers will eventually be able to glimpse the outlines of the mural that heralded the contemporary era of mural making in Los Angeles.

--Joyce Gregory Wyels

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a freelance writer based in Los Alamitos, California, and a previous contributor to Americas.
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Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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