How LA, one of the youngest cities in the  developed world, is writing its history


Most cities are recognized by their iconic landmarks: the Colosseum in Rome, the Empire State building in New York, Big Ben in London, the Taj Mahal in Agra…and their well-documented histories protected by the impermeable centuries. But what do you do if your city is built on a desert and a fault line and is barely two hundred years old? Who decides what is history? LA is synonymous with glamour, power, trends and all things new. But it is a city with residents, homes, families, needs, problems, achievements too. Who documents the real culture and life of this diverse and misunderstood metropolis?


The muralists, the street artists and, inevitably, the transcient billboard culture.


But the eleven year ban on murals in LA has only served to increase the pile of lawsuits regarding all issues to do with signs, billboards and murals in the city. Many years of wobbly regulation on signs and murals led to some creative law-skirting by outdoor advertising firms, resulting in lawsuits and rule changes.  Finally the Mural Moratorium ended the mural culture of the city – no more new murals.  But, if anything, the Mural Moratorium has served to highlight the great cultural debate in America and the ongoing cultural revolution: freedom of speech and real art vs.  censorship.


What it isn’t about is the commercialisation of art.  Selling art – well, if LA is anything, it is about that. To say art isn’t art if it’s commercial makes no sense in a world when money still defines an object’s value. An artist has a right to be paid for his labour.


The process towards art being worth anything may be long, messy, emotionally and financially exhausting but it’s still a process which can be distinguished from advertising – the blatant selling of a product through art.  However, with pop culture and modern day iconography largely based around the process of advertising, the line between commercial and artistic expression is often blurred. There is a place for non-commercial art. There is a place for above-the-line advertising but, in 2013, the majority of creative output is a fusion of both.


In the 1990s, the start of this cultural revolution, the debate was between graffiti artists who ‘sold out’ to galleries and artists who kept their integrity, anonymity (and poverty) – who ‘kept it real’. Actually, the only real thing was that both got it wrong: the anonymous artist’s techniques, style and portfolio were forever lost and the ‘sell-outs’ were set adrift in a cruel mercurial environment which isolated them from the humanity their art reached for by the deification of the artist.


What attracted me to L.A. was a different philosophy: here, art was essential to community. It had no subway and it struggled to reinterpret its stories in a sprawling city with feuding cultures. Murals and street art were its only way of connecting. Trying to join up the dots between gang tags, murals, ads and billboards itself required a heightened cultural awareness I was lacking. Still, I’d never seen such eloquent murals, particularly in the gang neighbourhoods in which I lived. I’d seen some in New York City in 1993 but they never lasted long. LA’s murals fired my own imagination. I’d never felt the urge to declare my own ego through tagging and ‘pieces’ but murals – this was something I wanted to do. When I had to go back to the UK, I started – longing for the same warmth and connection.


Murals are important cultural documents which continually reach out to a community and different generations. There’s nothing narcissistic about murals. Coming from the UK, the most refreshing modern art was always graffiti as it connected with an unseen element of society and articulated truths, history and visions of the future.  Murals always reach out.


But where and how did they begin?

The Mexican mural movement of the 1930s brought a new prominence to murals as a social and political tool. This had come about after 1910 when, under the tyranny of President Porfurio Diaz, two thirds of Mexico were in total poverty and slavery was growing at a faster rate than in the time of the Conquistadores. As a result, a small but significant intellectual community sprang up including the Althanaeum, a trio of artists, Antonious Curo, Alfonso Reyes and Jose Vasconcelos. They were cultured and highly educated and held to ‘The community that terrorizes over man forgets that men are ‘persons’ not biological units.’  This thought affected an entire generation of painters and changed Mexican art forever. Three specific artists were at the frontline of this change: David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Political revolution had only just begun – cultural revolution was to follow.


In 1920, General Obregon, the incoming President, asked Jose Vasconcelos how to unite a mostly illiterate country. Vasconcelos suggested mural art to reach the masses – a technique used by their Mayan and Aztec ancestors before the conquest. As Secretary of Education, he commissioned Mexico’s best artists to paint murals throughout the country. All the Great Three believed firmly that ‘Art is for the education and betterment of the people’, not an abstract concept or vehicle for exploring whims. This art philosophy was behind the Syndicate of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors.


Although a lot of their work was collaborative, the government imposed no limitations so each painter was free to work in his own style with his own techniques.  Of all three, Siqueiros was the most innovative and moved from traditional fresco techniques to pyroxlene, a commercial enamel and DUCO, a transparent automobile paint. He used rapid bold lines, exaggerated his perspective resulting in dramatic, original images which seared the imagination of his generation. He was obsessed with the future and technology so soon initiated a new type of mural painting: spraying, splattering, dripping, pouring using acrylics, resins and asbestos. He was the first to see the potential of the airbrush and arguably the first aerosol artist.


All three painters, despite different styles, techniques and preoccupations of theme believed in the power of the mural as the highest form of art whose role it was to reach the people – to communicate and educate.


However, when Siqueiros came to LA, he was confronted with a very different context to the political and artistic freedom, the land of plenty he was expecting. Instead of his countrymen prospering, he found them suffering in even worse poverty, discrimination and unemployment.


Chile-born art historian, Isabel Rojas-Williams is the Executive Director of the mural Conservancy in LA. She has also done much work curating the legacy of great muralists. Having lived through the political turmoil and struggle of her own country, she realises better than most the importance of art in reconfiguring a society after social injustice and has given her life to documenting and promoting this.

‘LA is such a diverse city and art changes every day. Muralism was established in 1932 when the great Mexican Master David Alfaro Siqueiros created ‘Tropical America’ at El Pueblo, the birth site of Los Angeles.  This powerful political statement was painted along the exterior of the second floor of Olvera Street’s Italian Hall, where the Plaza Art Center was located at the time.


Siqueiros painted three murals while in LA: Tropical America, Street Meeting and Portrait of Mexico Today.  Thousands of muralists have been inspired by the political message within Siqueiros’ Tropical America. The mural was promptly whitewashed by the authorities in charge at the time because the socio-political message represented by its centerpiece: the indigenous worker crucified on a double cross – chillingly similar to Riskie’s portrayal of the cultural revolutionary Tupac Shakur for the album cover ‘The Don Killuminati – the 7 Day Theory’. 


Siqueiros had been asked to paint a ‘Tropical America by Christine Sterling who envisaged a tourist attraction: a kitschy Mexican village.  When he arrived in Los Angeles,  Siqueiros found his country people impoverished and unemployed during the Great Depression. He did both sides of the mural: jungle and Mayan pyramids falling down. But the centerpiece he didn’t paint until the night before the unveiling. The famous artist, Jackson Pollock, had a brother who was Siqueiros’ assistant – one of the twenty artists that formed Siqueiros’ Bloc of artists. . Apparently, Siqueiros told everyone to leave. The morning arrived of October 9th 1932. Everyone gasped. He wanted to represent the reality that the indigenous workers and Latinos were suffering oppression by U.S. imperialism at the time of the Great Depression and he depicted this through the crucifixion on a double cross capped by an American eagle (the symbol of imperialism) and revolutionary soldiers.  There was an intense reaction from the authorities – they didn’t like it. They decided to whitewash it. It was painted on the Italian Hall – El Pueblo . Today it is the A.T.I.C. (the America Tropical Interpretive Center).


This mural was preserved by the city of LA and the Getty Conservation Institute on October 9th 2012 eighty years later. They used photos from 1932 to help and it was a $10M project. Preservation is not restoration. Restoration is when you retouch what’s on the wall. Preservation is when you leave it exactly as it is, protected and kept as an artefact. This mural has served as an inspiration for thousands upon thousands in the 60s, 70s and 80s to introduce graffiti artists to the Chicano basics of the political issues, the empowerment because they felt it was an education for them, a way to remember their roots, a documentation of the social injustice.


Muralists and graffiti artists respect and look up to Siqueiros as a very radical muralist. He was the first to use air guns and photo montage, photography and movie cameras. He used radical techniques that no one had used before.  The first graffiti artist for this technique, Siqueiros was imprisoned several times in Mexico and deported to LA and to South America. He was a communist, a muralist and he loved women. While in prison in Taxco (a town in Mexico), he met the world-renowned Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein whom he first met while under house arrest in Taxco during 1930-32. It was Eisenstein who taught him all the techniques and this is what Siqueiros adapted for the creation of his murals.


Although his piece had been whitewashed in 1932, by the late 70s it started to reappear. The Latinos saw it as a sign and as inspiration. They had to go out and paint murals to portray the social injustice. At that time, the 70s, the Chicano Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war were going on. People felt threatened by the two wars, the Holocaust, the threat of the nuclear bomb. LA was galvanized by the events mentioned above and people began to paint murals everywhere. Murals were appearing at the same time throughout LA, South Central LA, Westside…in Venice and Santa Monica, members of the Fine Art Squad painted many murals. Kent Twitchell was painting monumental portraits of people who were icons e.g. Steve McQueen, Strother Martin, Ed Ruscha Monument etc. He defines his murals as ‘realism’ not ‘photorealism’ .  South Central muralists created an incredible number of African American murals that claimed for social justice and equality. In East Los Angeles, Chicanos gave birth to the 1970s Chicano Mural Movement in historic sites such as Estrada Courts where muralists spoke about discrimination, social justice, ethnical roots, empowerment and education.


In general, Latinos and African Americans were the most active muralists documenting social injustice, education and empowerment. Murals are the cultural bridge between the streets and institutions such as museums and  galleries. You didn’t have to have Higher Education to understand a mural. Art was an open book. Children passing by could ask questions. The kid will find out, search out the name, go to a museum. At one time, we were proud of our murals and cultural heritage. In 1984, ten of our top muralists were commissioned to paint murals on 101 Freeway when LA hosted the Olympics.  These muralists were: Kent Twitchell, Glenna Avila, Frank Romero, Alonzo Davis, John Wehrle, Roderick Sykes, Judy Baca, Richard Wyatt, Terry Schoonhoven and the youngest of them all, barely out of high school, Willy Herron III. It is Willy who is currently doing the preservation work on the 101 Freeway to prepare for the 30 year anniversary in 2014.


Then the city issued a Mural Moratorium. This happened because billboard signs and murals were under the same definition and fighting for space. The signs were saying the murals were denying them space and it was against the First Amendment of free speech. So the city declared no more murals.


From then on,  muralists, artists, art advocates, and the community-at-large all decided that it was time for the city to erect an ordinance relieving this. Three years ago, we started to have an impact on the city by uniting and claiming for a mural ordinance that would legalize and protect murals and lift the 2002 Mural Moratorium - – no murals. Anyone younger than 30 has not been able to paint publically legally. Art programs in the city and in schools were erased due to budget cuts. Young people couldn’t go to create. Art is an essential part of healing in any community or individual. Without it, there has been greater animosity from the younger generation being unable to paint. The Mural Moratorium is against pieces on private property. Murals already up began to be tagged more and more. They weren’t respected and younger writers were bitter and unhappy about their lack of opportunities. So the city decided to whitewash murals (to protect them from the tagging) that had been heavily tagged so our history began to be erased. This was exactly what had happened to Siqueros in 1932.


The Department of City Planning formed The Mural Working Group consisting of about fifteen people. The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA) organized the first seven ‘mural ordinance updates’ throughout greater LA which included muralists representing the rich diversity of LA. These mural ordinance updates were offered in galleries, museums and cultural centers. At that point, the muralists began organizing themselves to get together and different groups began to have more and more meetings. Over 30 meetings were held and the mural ordinance draft was beginning to show the input of the muralists. We were all helping write the mural ordinance draft with the help of a city planner.


In the last two years, we’ve been going to City Hall to speak in front of the City Council. We are at the end of it. The last hearing in front of the PLUM Commission was January 15th 2013.  We are in the last stage, in the 90 days it should go through. We hope it will be presented to the full city council and approved.  This will mean muralists can paint in public places legally – no Mural Moratorium along with the older generation will be able to create again. The draft is not perfect but at least we won’t have the Mural Moratorium.


Street art and murals – in reality, it’s all part of the same. The face of LA evolves constantly. But since Pre-Paleothic times, Altamira and Lascaux caves, man has had the desire to leave a mark to connect, to create, the basic need of humans and art is healing. From the beginning of time by creating we can heal the issues and pains that we deal with every day. It is a way of addressing wars, financial crises, discrimination.  Art is the glue that holds us – society – together. Without art, we would cease to exist.


Obviously, in such a diverse city – very comparable to ancient Rome – different languages and ethnicities, different kinds of art and a desire to create and connect and to energise  the passersby with the ideas about how they deal with the establishment. The public art face of LA is very representative of who we are. Traditional muralists and graffiti artists and collaborations between the two are an integral part of the cultural life of LA.


In reality, the property of the building with the mural on is improved because the art improves it. The same will apply to the famous murals in the city. I don’t think it devalues a property – if anything, it increases its value. Murals belong to the city of LA. They are a part of our history and also allow visions for our future.


The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), founded in 1987,  restores murals back and forth across the city whenever we can raise enough money: preserving, restoring and documenting the history of LA as iconic.


LA is a trendsetter in so many ways that being with the arts because of its rich diversity  - so very vibrant with all these opinions close together, all these wonderful flavours and different lives – beautiful – reflective of who we are – makes for a most energetic city - unlike more homogenous countries which don’t have that sort of input.’


As I wander the streets of LA, the most exotic fairy tale and history unravels before me: the peeling posters, the murals – here today, gone tomorrow, the street artists mementos in corners and crannies, alleys and archways, the signs deeper, far deeper than the superficiality with which the superficial tourist brands this city. One boiling hot Monday, walking down Melrose, I find the wacky surreal graffiti piece I had come to photograph was now being covered over by four Los Angelenos.  On questioning, I discover ‘Arteckwalls’ is a family-based company, over twenty years old, which has used artesan skills and indigenous art and adapted them to the rapidly-changing, commercial and litigious environment of LA.

‘We are contracted by a media company,’ says Krist Colocho, the guy with a twelve foot roller painting a thirty foot wall. ‘They give us the design and we have to reconfigure it to the space.  Any size, any height. We use photorealist techniques – but oil and brush. I learnt it all from my dad. He’d done murals in El Salvador before going to Trade Tech when he moved to LA to learn more skills. He started working for the company that came before the CBS Outdoors. Now we’re contracted out. They present us with the ideas and we deliver the art!’


I ask how the Mural Moratorium affected work.

“The Mural Moratorium affected the vinyl installations more. Everyone playing it safe was out with posters , flyers and it made it really hard to get vinyl installations done. There was more bill-posting. But the brave were still going out painting murals. It didn’t stop that.’


I am impressed by their technique – despite the heat, paint in boxes, rolls of paper, a simple A5 photo of what they have to photorealise x 2500 on a store wall, thirty feet high and thirty wide.  Apparently, Krist’s father tells me, it will take them 3-4 days because it is expected to rain; when I pass by the next day, they aren’t there but the image is and the logo, almost as if a photo has been pasted to the wall.  But it hasn’t…These guns-for-hire nestle next to an alleyway stuffed with colour, bill posters and exotic dreamscapes with wise gnomic sayings squashed between images.  This is LA for real. The murals are this young city’s archive and library and should be treated with respect and read with understanding.


On the other end of the spectrum are the committed artists who devote their lives to challenging and igniting people’s perspectives and thinking through their images.  One such is Los Angeles native, Mear One.


MEAR ONE from Los Angeles

  1. What first inspired you to start painting murals?

The scale of large art has always been an intriguing challenge, mainly, the ability to take a drawing and blow it up to fit a big wall. Also, the public reaction is powerful too because you see and experience on a much wider level the visceral feelings and reactions people go through because you put something out in public, rather than within the confined space of a few white walls.


  1. What is a mural to you? How does it differ to other forms of street art/graffiti pieces and other canvases?

A mural is a large public work of art, a painting. This experience usually becomes a conversation between the viewer and the work. Others share the experience and different conclusions form and help us diversify as a society being filled with perspective. For some art is inaccessible. However, a mural invites all to participate. At their best, murals acknowledge a shared perspective and bonds similar minds together. As a form of public art, it is a way for society and its individuals to feel they have a stake in life, because they feel connected,


How did the Mural Moratorium affect muralists in real terms?

LA was once the mural capital of the world and still can be. I remember a decade or so ago the city removed a Kent Twitchell mural in Downtown LA. The artist filed a landmark lawsuit against the city over the illegal removal of his mural that he eventually won. During this period I also noticed how local stores were selling off their wall spaces outside of their businesses to the highest bidder for advertisement space. Graffiti artists were being hired to do corporate advertisements, and billboard companies were becoming upset as they held the license agreements for add deals in the city. This was affecting business and they weren’t getting their cut, just like gangsters in my opinion. So the moratorium was initiated and we saw the removal of all the great murals on the 101 freeway as well as all the famous works across town that were protected by the previous mural conservancy laws. From there began a series of meetings to work out agreements over the mural moratorium. I was aware of a corporate coup that had been inflicted upon the community of Los Angeles. As a result, I made it a point to never attend the mural meetings, nor did I ask for approval for the work I created over the last decade. I created a mural of the war we were waging on Iraq in 2003 on the corner of Alvarado and Sunset Bl. in Echo Park. I painted an homage to Mahatma Gandhi on the Center For Political Graphics on Crescent Heights in West Hollywood circa 2007, as well as a mural of the Dali Lama in the Melrose alleyways in Hollywood that same year. And many more. But my point being, I never let the laws affect me as a young Graffiti Writer, and as a public muralist I wasn’t about to start allowing the corporations to censor me, to hold me back from letting my voice be heard through on topical issues affecting us all and that my murals created across the city in the past two years reflect - “The Children of Tomorrow” in Echo Park; “Homage to Alphonse Mucha” in Hollywood; “The Allegory Of Complacency” in Lincoln Heights; “Singularity” in Downtown, Los Angeles, “Humanity vs The Machine” in Culver City, and many more.


  1. What are the main challenges for a muralist in LA?

Some of the challenges are surviving the peer group and the environment. Symbolically, LA is a desert full of snakes and very little water. Using the desert as a powerful metaphor for the cityscape evokes a sense of danger for the unconscious wanderer, indeed wonderer. You have to stay on your toes and keep your eyes on the goal or you’ll get lost in the superficial nuances of Hollywood and the dazzling circus it can be. The challenge is to find a distinctive space for yourself and to develop depth, because the environment prescribes a sort of chameleon type of ideals where everything just goes with the flow and this makes it very hard to remain grounded without giving into complacency and the everyday.


  1. If the ordinance is passed, how do you see the dynamic of street art changing in LA?

Well, we have lots of wall space so the removal of the politics will perhaps inspire more businesses and property owners to have murals painted on their walls. My hope is that it will up the game for those who are playing around and those who are serious and committed to creating challenging works for society. My worry is that by involving so many complex city ordinances it doesn't make room for the pure art experience.


  1. Do you believe there is now more respect/appreciation for mural work?

There has always been respect and appreciation for murals, I can’t remember a time when I painted a mural or came to hang with another artist that people driving by weren’t honking or that the locals weren’t cooking some food for everyone up on the wall or offering another gesture of kindness, respect and comaraderie. That’s how a lot of the ‘human’ connections are made that as a muralist is what I live for - during painting, I find people grow more inquisitive and open to creative collaborations, on an intellectual and even spiritual level.


  1. How do you feel about the preservation of murals and creation of the new?

Such work should have protection and respect because they may exist as a gift for the future, an homage to the past. Murals have the ability to communicate the now and that ought to be worth more to us than any unnecessary corporate billboard. We need things in our society that are not and do not worship the gratification of superficiality and mediocre thinking. It is part of our responsibility to humanity to leave behind a message that preserves like the Pyramids of Egypt or the paintings in the caves of Glasgow and so forth.


  1. Do you think there should be more documentation on murals or that they should remain open to interpretation?

I feel the documentation of murals and public work is getting easier because of technology, but when considered as an art form, is of course open to interpretation as such. So much of my early work is lost under layers of paint, out there, somewhere. Back then, I didn’t have the time to run around and develop film nor could I afford it. Thankfully there are a few OG’s out there who have been shooting street work for years. But now, documentary technology in a variety of social media forms is abundant. As a political muralist, well, you can imagine the sort of wide interpretations my various murals have had in the mainstream!


  1. Do muralists collaborate?

Muralists sometimes collaborate on walls so they can share in the experience and add more to the piece, by combining two or more artistic styles. Sometimes people just need each other to accomplish a large-scale mural due to the sheer size. Collaborating is an artform in its own right. The mixing of two styles is hard to pull off unless there is a great deal of respect for each other. That makes the art and the memory lasting as a great experience.


  1. Have you any anecdotes which highlight the challenges or achievements through your work?

My experience makes me think of the lives of every artist and living being. This is one of the byproducts of being an artist - you feel empathy for others so you can express this through your art. The challenge is to find depth, meaning and purpose in you work. This is hard when, driving the opinions of people are quite often things like the mainstream media and advertisers, institutions that hold no truth or depth for the human condition beyond the simple calculation of appealing to the lowest common denominator. So it is the search for truth, a striving toward some sort of relationship to our authentic and sacred selves, that is the challenge. When I travelled to London in October 2012 I painted a mural entitled, “The New World Order is the Enemy of Humanity.” It depicted bankers from the robber-baron era of the 1920’s who were sat playing a game of monopoly on the backs of the working class. Behind them I sprayed in specific imagery that on the first day of painting was immediately challenged by the majority of locals who were of Muslim decent and who claimed that it was a symbol that had hunted their people for generations. However, over the next few days I had won their respect and understanding as my anti-working class oppression, anti-elitist establishment message became clearer, only to find that a new faction of the public were now denouncing the mural upon racial grounds! The controversy grew, vandalized by local underground militia groups, discussed by international media outlets such as the BBC and was eventually whitewashed. It hurt to see it go, but the mural served its original purpose, sparking debate.


  1. Can you describe your own techniques/process in creating a mural? Is it self-taught or did you learn from others?

I am pretty much a self-taught artist and I learn new techniques constantly. I try to create murals that pull you into a deep field of thought and inner vision, involving you on a life-size scale. I have learned this through everything from comic books to philosophy.  


  1. Which is the mural you are most proud of and why?

My favorite mural is “Humanity Vs The Machine” in Culver City. I feel like I really got to spread out and just paint with no restrictions, expressing ideas around how GMOs are added to our food without our knowledge, occurring within a mechanized, automized reality run by complacent people who just do without question. This idea is juxtaposed with a family growing organic food in their natural habitat, standing together in a defiant symbol of resistance.


  1. What is your dream location for a mural and why?

Any location where a lot of people can be affected in a positive way by art that is timeless, yet current in its discourse so that people are drawn to think. I relish the experience of sharing my art in foreign lands and it changes and challenges me too – both as a person and artist.


  1. How hard is it to survive as a muralist? Is it worth it and, if so, why?

I paint for my well-being. My art has brought everything good in my life. There really is no plan “B” so I don’t know if there is an answer I can give. I think just living, losing, winning, loving, travelling, falling, climbing, fighting, giving, seeing, being, is hard enough and being an artist is the greatest path towards self-realization I can experience this time around. Being an artist gives me the ability to present my thoughts to the world as I see them. The filter is so purely singular, there is no room for misinterpretation, which I mean to say, no one else can think for me. There is a point I believe when a human being attains such a purity of conviction in is or her own thought that he/she is able to stand face to face with the strictest of scrutiny and examination by his or her own peers. What follows is meaningful conversation. Now that is a meaningful life, and is why art is so powerful and fulfilling to me.   



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