Public Art Replicas on the 101: Mural or not a Mural?

Replica of Ruben Soto's I Know Who I Am being installed on the 101 I Caltrans

Worker hang a banner with an image of a former 101 Freeway mural. Rolled up, it was stolen after being installed. I CaltransFour reproductions of iconic Los Angeles murals were planned to be unveiled Monday morning, a second phase from Caltrans to restore public art to the 101 Freeway. But the program designed to fight graffiti is now dealing with theft. Two of the banners, called "mobile murals," were stolen sometime Sunday, before they had a chance to be rolled down and introduced along the walls of the Hollywood Freeway between Grand Avenue and Alameda Street in downtown.

The Mural Preservation Demonstration Project began as a measured response to the damage of public art caused by vandalism, which costs the state millions of dollars annually. So severe was the tagging, the futility in keeping murals restored prompted Caltrans to buff out art without warning. That caused an outcry from mural and public art advocates. Caltrans, which seemingly painted itself in corner, considers this program a solution.

Missing replicas aside, the broader question may be "Why bother? It's not really a mural."

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Jupiter Galileo and Apollo replica in July 2010 I Photo by Ed Fuentes


Caltrans surveying tagging on Galileo, Jupiter and Apollo in December 2009 I Photo by Ed FuentesThe first phase was the July 2010 temporary installation of a banner with the image of "Galileo, Jupiter and Apollo" at one-third (9 1/2 feet high by 75 feet wide) of the original scale. It opened to some fanfare, yet when the image was installed, the mural designed to be seen traveling at 60 miles an hour, or from across the span of a freeway, was dwarfed by its original site. It was later taken down.

It just did not have the epic majesty of a mural. It was like an 8 X 10 high dynamic range headshot reduced to a Facebook profile photo; a Gustavo Dudamel-led LA Phil heard on a 78 rpm record; a literal and visual Band-Aid on a granite torso losing its visual life blood from a gaping wound.

Still, the collective led by Caltrans, working with Wells Fargo, Metro, and the Los Angeles Conversation Corps are determined to keep the body of freeway works warm.

The second phase relocates two Hollywood themed pieces to downtown, joining two other new mobile murals that contain images painted for the 1984 Olympics. They will be displayed for 90 days.

The downsized replicas, made of vandal resistant plastic vinyl mesh, were placed at several entry points to the 101, according Caltrans spokesperson Patrick Chandler, who added that Metro will cover the costs to replace the stolen murals, first funded by Wells Fargo.

One of the missing murals is a panel from "I Know Who I Am," showing Mickey Rourke posed in a boxing stance. It is a smaller reproduction of the 1990 work by Ruben Soto that once graced an Echo Park underpass along the 2 Freeway. Soto called the theft a "bummer." "It's about beautifying the neighborhood," he said.

"Tony Curtis" is safe. The reproduction of the mural by George Sportelli was first painted in 1994 on a Hollywood Boulevard overpass, and once visible traveling north on the 101, is intact, but about a third smaller than its original.

Two works from the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival are returning as mini-murals are near their original locations. What is missing for now is Frank Romero's "Going to the Olympics." John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter and Apollo" has been remounted.

Old-school purists regard a mural as only a mural when painted on a wall. Anything that is printed material on a substrate, then adhered to a wall, moves from the tradition of muralism.

If you have been playing attention to our mural coverage, the City of LA's sign ordinances partly agree with the old guard. If any of these new pieces were installed a few steps away, in private property within the city, it would be considered to be closer to a banner wrap than a mural. Despite the content, it would be deemed an illegal sign.

Between that and the thefts, well, so much for preserving a mural.

Still, Caltrans' idea has merit as a stopgap until solutions and funding that help counter weather elements and tagging are found. Their resolve is to be commended, even if their so-dubbed "innovative strategy" is not unprecedented.

In 1996, The Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC), led by Judith Baca, installed printed vinyl banners on the exterior of the Center Theater Group's administrative building to mark the history of the Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theater. Recently, Baca installed a series of installed murals about Robert F. Kennedy inside the former Ambassador Hotel ballroom, now the library of LAUSD's RFK Community Schools.

Even I, wearing my muralist hat, have installed banners as murals. A temporary mural about Downtown's Main Street fronted the Regent Theatre from February 2008 to August 2009.

In all cases, the relationship between architecture, site history, and scale were integral to the composition.

While there is no doubt that the size of the replicas can have impact once people see it up close, Caltrans' Transportation Art Program may be missing the mark with the freeway installations being a restoration of a mural program for public space.

But there is an ironic impact in Caltrans' project. Baca's aesthetic mission, through SPARC and/or the UCLA Digital Mural Lab, is displaying original neighborhood portraits with content and placing it in "sites of public memory."

The installation of these four pieces may not be a mural in this context, but it does become a memorial by recalling the public art that was once a part of the 101 -- if we can keep them from being stolen, that is.

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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While I applaud CalTrans efforts and intention, I do not agree with how these pieces have been reproduced. They should be called "Flapping in the Wind Replica Murals." The inherent dignity of the monumental scale of some of the original murals should have been honored, it's almost a joke to see the indignity bestowed on our mural legacy, I can almost hear our mural community all over the world LOL right now. Fortunately, there is a way to reproduce a mural that honors the muralist and the mural, just ask SPARC and MCLA.

The larger problem in all of this is a lack of foresight and vision for a respected mural maintenance initiative. These freeway murals were given their rightful public space in 1984 during the Olympics and for many years remained untouched. Had there been a systematized or standardized way of maintaining the murals, ultimately we could have won the battle of their destruction, but instead we lost the war. The problem just got out of control beyond what anyone could have imagined.

It has been said; "the code of the street has been broken" and for those of us charged with the task of tending the "code of the street," we need real solutions, real partnerships and real dollars. Until this happens, perhaps we should create a graveyard park for murals that have been lost, destroyed, removed, or whitewashed.

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I haven’t seen them in person, but that photo really has the appearance they hung the space one, at least, with a level, meaning its probably true to the earth’s gravity, but doesn’t work with the lines around it. Is that really what they did? Please confirm.

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C'mon art people, loosen your hatbands. What we've watched for 27 years is a succession of murals, and they all follow deep art world trends and trajectories. First came the 1984 murals, traditional in form and applauded as such. We then witnessed the slow addition of more and more mural elements, in the classic form of hand-applied paint, but part of the rising vanguard of graffiti and street art. Then there was a clean-up. An attempt to restore an old form? A retrograde effort to regain a lost past? Or was this erasure of graffiti more conceptually based, the equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg famously erasing the de Kooning drawing? Undaunted, the street artists rose to the new challenge. No conceptual erasures for them, just paint applied over time and at considerable personal risk. Eventually, of course, we all watched the application of a gorgeously minimalist element -- a solid gray Caltrans paint coat matching their beloved concrete in density and color. Brilliant! Is this not the equivalent of Malevich's black squares or Ad Reinhardt's "Black Paintings?" Finally, we have the current master touch -- the deployment of mural simulacra, highly modern murals of pigment digitally infused into plastic vinyl mesh. And the subjects of these latest iterations of the mutating murals? That's the stroke of genius. They are replicas, tawdry in tone and reduced in scale, of the 1984 murals, now deeply buried beneath layers of paint applied by previous artists. I'm waiting for the next move, but there's certainly an art world precedent. Lucio Fontana's "Slashed Canvases" anyone?