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10 Monumental Murals of Los Angeles

With the mural ordinance going into effect this Saturday, October 12, 2013, the City of Los Angeles will call it "Mural Day," marking the end of a 11-year moratorium on murals on private property. Declarations will go on the record Friday, Councilmember José Huizar will introduce a new project in Boyle Heights, and nine artists will use utility boxes on First Street as a canvas.

It's the same week that marks the first year anniversary of the rededication of David Alfaro Siqueiros' "America Tropical," which made its debut 81 years ago.

In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote that reproduction technique allows the function of art to be reversed from its previous themes and movements: "Instead of being based on ritual it begins to be based on another practice, politics." From 1932 to 2002, we see how Los Angeles murals made politics the new ritual for art content.

Now, just ten murals? Impossible really, and somehow there is no Olympic-era art included. By all means, disagree with the list; we can make more. Send us your own suggestions in the comments box below.

And so here is a ceremonial list of Ten Monumental Murals that were created before the 2002 ban.

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1: América Tropical (1932)
David Alfaro Siqueiros

Photo: Getty Conservation Institute

On the street where the city was founded, the faded image of an indigenous figure on a cross is the symbol for ideology and process of future murals. If you are a reader here, you know the story: After nights with the city's leading artists, inspired to be selected as members of Siqueiros' "Bloc of Painters," the commissioned "América Tropical" had a civic debut on October 8, 1932, and was greeted with admiration and antipathy. The political view of imperialism in the Americas, painted with new technique of paint applied with pressured spray on experimental materials, was designed to be visible to the people it intended to reach. It fulfilled Siqueiros' manifesto that revolution is about content, technique, and presentation. It was intact only until 1938, when it was completely whitewashed. The rediscovery of the mural, and the back story of its loss, began during a time when reclaiming culture identify was a political declaration of self. "For the growing Chicano art movement, the aesthetic of Mexican muralism coexist with the most avant-grade manifestations to express the particular life experience of the urban Chicano," wrote art historian Shifra M. Goldman in 1974.

View of América Tropical from interpretive center plattform I Photo: © Helen Ly / viewfromaloft 2012

• • •


2: The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1976-1983)
Judith Baca / Social Public Art and Resource Center

Great Wall of Los Angeles | Photo: Courtesy SPARC

The monumental scope of Judith Baca's novelization of Los Angeles' past is fitted in a channel where water once flowed freely, and a direct descendant of the teachings of Siqueiros. As it is covered extensively here at KCET, I'll offer a simple interpretation for this list: the final panel shows a ceremonial Olympic runner, a strong female who was not just passed a torch, but ran with it, leading an indigenous plume of known and lost history of the city.

• • •


3: Will Rogers Monument(1998)
Kent Twitchell

Will Rogers Monument I Photo: © Ed Fuentes / viewfromaloft 2012

In Will Rogers Monument, a two-part installation on the California Theater in San Bernardino, both renditions of Rogers have the eyes of a storyteller. Why do I focus on this mural away from the city? After all, there is the dramatic eradication, and court victory supporting artist's rights, with "Ed Ruscha Monument." Or the connection of art with commuter culture with "The Freeway Lady." Twitchell doesn't directly politicize a point of view, yet this homage to a cultural icon is a reminder that murals are about Southern California, not just Los Angeles.

• • •


4: We are not a Minority 1978
Mario Torero with El Congreso de Artistas Cosmicos de las Americas de San Diego

We Are Not A Minority I Photo: © Isabel Rojas-Williams / MCLA

A list of ten SPARC murals, or a list of art in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, would be a strong representation of mural history. It is, in fact, the attempt to bring back murals on the east side of town that pushed forth action from the city to draft a mural ordinance -- once courts made a decision on litigation from media companies. One loophole was how the use of words was restricted, which made works like "We are not a Minority" more illegal to produce, once murals were banned. Like Willie Herron's "The Wall That Cracked Open," Mario Torero's used typography as an aesthetic, advancing the Chicano mural as a merging of word and image, as noted before. "We went with 'we' from 'you' to make show the (civil rights) movement is all encompassing," said Torero. The muralist has also stated he's hoping to restore the original composition of his Estrada Court landmark piece.

• • •


5: The Wall That Speaks, Sings, and Shouts (2001)
Paul Botello

Muro que Habla, Canta y Grita (The Wall That Speak, Sings, and Shouts) I Photo: © Stephen L. Williams 2011

When you watch for murals, you can monitor their progress while moving around town. When they are done, not many mysteries are left. This one at Whittier Boulevard and Alma Avenue, at Ruben F. Salazar Park in East L.A., was a rare chance for me to have a pure visceral experience with a Los Angeles mural. The colors of a freshly completed work were lit by the sun during the right time of day, a year before the mural ban started, and made a stunning first sighting for me. From a distance, Botello's rich lines flag you in, and you are rewarded again when you stop to ponder the details. The title says it all.

• • •


6: Isle of California (1972)
Victor Henderson, Terry Schoonhoven, Jim Frazin (L.A. Fine Arts Squad)

Courtesy Fine Arts Squad

Just as "Los Tres Grandes" responded to the European mural tradition of realism and scale, Venice had a collective that did the same, while using the mandate from Mexican muralism that art belongs in the streets. The Fine Arts Squad "combined dark humor, DIY populism, sci-fi special effects and live-for-the-moment verve in ambitiously fun-loving works that captured the tenor of their times and still resonate today," wrote the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "Isle of California" is a rendition of California destruction by earthquake, now lost to the sun and no one lobbying for a restoration. A list of Venice Beach works would also also exceed a list of ten, but few would rival "Isle of California" storytelling and scale.


• • •


7: The Negro in California History (1949)
Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff

Settlement and Development

Advocacy forced two major works to stay in Los Angeles, for now. In 1949, Golden State Mutual commissioned Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff, major Harlem Renaissance painters, to paint a set of murals for their Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard location. The set, titled "The Negro in California History," is made of Alston's "Colonization and Exploitation" and Woodruff's "Settlement and Development." In 2011 the Smithsonian offered $750,000 for the two works, but withdrew when Los Angeles art historians protested. The murals, reproduced at a much smaller scale, are the focus in the exhibition of artifacts and documents of the work at the California African American Museum. The actual murals still sit in the original building awaiting their fate. Since we had Millard Sheets scholar, Adam Arenson, list works by Sheets in June (and we have to mention Sheets was member of Siqueiros' "Bloc of Painters"), it's fitting we note how a sponsor of public art showed how public art did not have to compromised.

• • •

8: A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy (1995)
Eliseo Art Silva

Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino Americans: A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy) I Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Photo © Ian Robertson-Salt

This 35' x 150 foot long mural in Historic Filipinotown speaks of the Centennial of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, while honoring Filipino-American heroes. "The design is divided into two parts. The first half is historical, leading up to the awakening of Filipino national and political consciousness. The second part is dominated by a huge bird with significant Filipino Americans on its wings, the farm workers on the bottom, and the youth and community on the right," wrote MCLA. "The mural is the first memorial to honor the 1,500 Filipino American farmworkers that ignited the 1965 Delano Grape Strike, who converged with César E. Chávez to form the UFW," says the artist, Eliseo Art Silva. To connect the theme of earth and art, a community garden was added in the lot fronting this SPARC-sponsored mural. The lot was enhanced further and on Sept. 8, 2007, dedicated as Unidad Park.

A Glorious History, a Golden Legacy from Public Matters on Vimeo.

• • •


9: Our Mighty Contribution AKA, The Crenshaw Wall, The Crenshaw Mural (1975)
Various artists

Crenshaw Wall I Photo: Ed Fuentes

It spans along a retainer wall that sits on a city block built for driving, an ambitious use of using space to tell a neighborhood's history. Sometimes called the "Great Wall of Crenshaw," the aerosol response to the "Great Wall of Los Angeles" has some segments change out. It may all be changing. According to a Facebook page "The Crenshaw Wall Restoration Project," the community "has decided it is time to add to the wall's legacy by creating a new mural which will reflect the mood and the complexion of the community now." The project is scheduled for August of 2014.

• • •


10: Art Saves Lives (1993) Phantom Street Artist

Art saves lives, Hollywood, 1993 I Photo: Robin J. Dunitz, Robin, Courtesy of University of Southern California Libraries

I close with another artist who carries the burden of political ideology manifested by a lone figure, who by choice straddles social martyrdom as he protests imperialism. In the case of The Phantom Street Artist, aka Joey Krebs, the invaders are in the form of Banksy and Shepard Fairey, exploiters of the street art tradition fueled by manipulating PR. This hints that images created by artists, and sold for profit, make retail the gallery of our time -- an elitist environment that progressive muralists wanted to ignore. Krebs isn't shy about his own PR, as he protests those street artists and other social violations as the working "spirit of our time." It may not be about race or ethnicity, but it is about class. Another thing that Krebs began with his 1993 work, which can be a starting point for street art using monumental thought, is that it connects to "América Tropical," as protest brought to a wider audience as a street experience.


Top: "Great Wall of Los Angeles." Photo by The City Project

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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