The Great Wall Saved History from Eradication, and Now it Survives its Own Erosion

Great Wall of Los Angeles, found in the Tujunga Wash in North Hollywood I Courtesy of SPARC © Judy Baca

The hushed history of Los Angeles and the waterways that runs through it share a common experience. They were diverted and drained to a quiet trickle of a previous truth.

If not for the masterpiece known as The Great Wall Of Los Angeles, the mural that brings life to 2,574 feet in the Tujunga Wash, alternative history may have taken longer to become common public knowledge.

That mural, which covers pre-historic Los Angeles through the 1950s (and a nod to the 1984 Olympics), was painted during the summers between 1976 and 1983. After months of labor, it will be rededicated this Saturday, its colors and coating restored.

Through research and design led by Judith Baca, what began as an early 1970s call-to-action from the Army Corps of Engineers to beautify the area, The Great Wall has easily lived up to its moniker.

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It is not just the size that makes the mural a cultural landmark, tt is the scale of the stories of indigenous, immigrant, and ethnic people that defined California's place in the national timeline.

The dramatic multicultural-based mural, overseen by the Social And Public Art Resource Center, which Baca co-founded, has deep roots in Mexican muralism's mission to reveal social conditions, a tradition that the organization continued with its Neighborhood Pride Mural Program.

That is what was striking about the piece when it was first completed. The revealed history of Chavez Ravine villagers ousted for Dodger Stadium, the heroics of the 442nd Japanese‑American infantry division, rock-and-roll not noting its influences of African-American musicians--all tales from the well of Los Angeles ethnic history.

By now, many of those stories are common knowledge by most Angeleños.

Yet, even today, there are still surprises by those who do not know the histories of the Chinese Massacre in Chinatown, the slave-turned-entrepreneur-and-philanthropist Biddy Mason, and that there was back story to Gay Rights, which are some of the subject matter in the mural.

More importantly, the legacy of The Great Wall is not just the content, but in the design and composition.

Sweeping lines of the horizon are throughout the piece--a trademark still seen in Baca's current large-scale works--are broken by movement that thrusts characters off the concrete wall.

That taps into muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros experiments with perspective, allowing social messages to have visual impact supported by mathematical draftsmanship that define spacing and visual rhythm.

Baca credits participation in a 1977 intensive course in mural techniques at Taller Siqueiros in Mexico, where studies included his polyangular theory, which the differences between easel painting and mural painting.

After noting how the first 1,000 feet of The Great Wall were too close to the easel style, lacking a visual flow from mural's masters, Baca began directing the design to form a stronger unified visual narrative. That style becomes more prominent in "Doughboys," a portion of the 1978 segment of the Great Wall (scroll through the Great Wall here and you'll see a difference starting between "Pre-Historic - 1920s" and "1920s - 1930s.")

That, and other applications of style by Baca, made The Great Wall of Los Angeles' to be a closer descendant to Siqueros "American Tropical." The immigrant Mexican art form, which first influenced Chicano Art, now helped make multicultural murals become indigenous to Los Angeles, as interpreted and taught by Baca.

It is a story still evolving. Long range plans to continue The Great Wall's content into the 1990s has been discussed, and workshops were once held to develop new stories and content.

That began over a decade ago, in the former garage at the rear of the former Venice Police Station, home to SPARC, where students and community began talking, quibbling, and researching via workshops that began the foundation for Great Wall of Los Angeles to move forward.

Which leads to my story, an answer to Saturday's event asking how one may be shaped by the experience of public murals in Los Angeles.

As a contributing community artist, I assisted with an early rendition of a yet-to-be-painted panel that defines the 1970s, a decade with a history buried under disco balls and leftover counter-culture. Through the workshops, it was clear that the protests of the 1960s matured, became organized, and gathered its influence of voices to seek ways to administer social change.

Within the triangular framework of intersecting lines and points that organize shapes and color, there was a mid-1970 photo of Judith Baca, standing in front of the Great Wall. I shifted it to the bottom segment of the piece, centered, and a bit larger.

Consider that an answer from a community member who wanted to be ready, in case if he was ever asked about his experiences with public art: I can now say, "Yes. I know a muralist who made social change an art form, and made Los Angeles the front and center catalyst of an outdoor art movement."

Share Your Story
KCET Departures invites you to participate in a StoryShare event at the Community Picnic Celebrating the Restoration of the Great Wall on Saturday, September 17th, 3pm-6pm.

More details here.



Our blog "Land of Sunshine" is about the shifting culture of our neighborhoods, as well as being a space for ideas. Stay in touch by liking KCET Departures on Facebook, following us on Twitter and subscribing to our RSS.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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