Writing on the Wall: Top L.A. Mural and Public Art Stories for 2012

Public art danced off the walls in 2012 with playful and meaningful experiments in paint, cardboard and music. A child was given international attention for his arcade, established locals restored what's left of L.A.'s mural legacy, and a former Angeleno took the city with him to Idaho.

If there was a shared theme, it may be how a personal relationship with public space becomes part of a larger civic culture. Below is a list of some of the things that has one consider what public space means to Angelenos.

1: "América Tropical" Out Of Exile

América Tropical Interpretive Center a day before dedication I Photo: Helen Ly for

Decades after its shocking debut in 1932, "América Tropical" became a muse for the Los Angeles mural movement. Eighty years later to the day, it was secured as a favored civic artifact and fixture with the opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center on October 8. The center also preserves the story on how David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural came to life, how it became whitewashed, and its recovery that began in the late 1960s. That Los Angeles tale is as rich and layered as the radical message on the conserved masterpiece.

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2: The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles Restoring Legacy

Willie Herrón III beginning work on Going to the Olympics I Photo: MCLA

I bet there were many who did not know there was a Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Now they do. With tireless advocacy, led by Isabel Rojas-Williams, the spirit of the city's murals has risen. Seemingly inspired by the grand thinking of Siqueiros, Rojas-Williams charges on to restore as many 1984 Olympic Game-era murals as possible before 2014, and fights to get her fellow advocates and volunteers credit for their work. Rojas-Williams deserves credit for restoring MCLA's visibility.

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3: SPARC Anniversary

Hitting The Wall I Photo: SPARC

Just as "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" is the signature piece for the Social Public Art and Resource Center, SPARC is the signature art institution for Southern California. 35 years of creating mural programs, quibbling with authority, inspiring other cities to start mural movements, and raising a fury for social messages, gave reason enough for the institution to hold a celebration gala this year. The work is not over -- this week it continued with the early stages of restoring "Hitting the Wall."

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4: Caine's Arcade

Someday you will hear about an engineer, architect, inventor, game designer, or public artist, list their project that began with a young boy from Boyle Heights. "Caine's Arcade Global Cardboard Challenge" may appear on someone's curriculum vitae someday. Public Art? Well, yes. It's an installation that began in an auto parts store, which went global. And as Caine Monroy taught us: we just need to use our imagination.

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5: "L.A. Creation" is a Private Idaho

Sure, there are some people in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, scratching their heads trying to figure out why Larry Kmetz recreated downtown Los Angeles in his basement. It wasn't as much a love for the city and its former gas tanks, as it was about the streetcar. With connectors and street cars coming, Kmetz model is really about having Angelenos get ready and collect their memories of riding through the city. We chatted with him in October. In the video above are some stunning photos by emerging photojournalist Gabe Green. Music is "Walking Downtown" by Vincent Nicolas, aka bidibop.

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6: Play This Painted Piano

Music and art shared public space with 30 pianos placed in the Los Angeles region for three weeks as part of LACO's "Play Me I'm Yours" project, allowing spontaneous street art to have a soundtrack.

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7: Alexander Schaefer Chalk Art

Alexander Schaefer with CRIME I Photo By Rush Varlea

Alexander Schaefer's protest at Occupy LA and big banks and his 12 hour arrest occupies a place on our list. "I saw what happened with 'chalk walk' at the last DTLA art walk and was bothered by what I felt was a waste of protest and a media disaster," said Schafer at Art Bound.

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8: More Statements in Cardboard

Courtesy of Ramiro Gomez

Ramiro Gomez's art gives dignity to people who work long hours in taxing jobs, and his statement builds reminders that Angelenos are more comfortable -- and our surroundings more beautiful -- because of their labor. They are built as ephemeral installations so the art, like the people it speaks of, is fragile and can be removed with no warning. The message is being documented by academia and in photographs.

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9: "Struggle" Saved.

Johnny D. González I Photo by Ed Fuentes

"A Story of Our Struggle," a 1974 installation made of 17 sections forming 19 ceramic tile panels, fronts the former home of the First Street Store. It was to be taken down, then adapted, then saved. It had advocates debate the County and charter school developers; it was a long battle. Johnny D. González is the Don Juan who won.

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10: Mural Ordinance Does Not Move Foward

Daniel Lahoda, Shepard Fairey, Tanner Blackman, and Saber at LALA Gallery. It was the last public meeting for the mural ordinance draft. That was back on Feb. 7 I Photo by Ed Fuentes

Last year, I reserved this for the number one spot since it was expected that the mural ordinance would pass in mid 2012. It would have been a big story. As of now, it is still in limbo. If it was the city departments that held up it's passing, that's not news. And it did get a stall in the hall. But hearing the boisterous public comment from muralists defending "hand-painted" murals, it was clear that artists slowed up the process. Was it a noble cause of upholding a mural tradition? If so, it is worth making sure that the ordinance is, as one vocal advocate said, "done right." Yet, with a growing political wrangling between different schools of artists, the protests became about lobbying for a particular mural style to have a larger aesthetic jurisdiction. Maybe next year.

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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