This week our guest commentator for "Writing on the Wall" tells us about the show of force by young artists upholding the Los Angeles mural tradition in the Valley. The writer is doing her part too. April Aguirre is the creator of iamsanfernando, which she calls "the first blog covering the east San Fernando Valley." Fortunately, the topics she covers includes murals. With a strong voice and steady camera, she showcases her hometown after spending three years in New York City.
If the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" had a say in selecting any other city to house her iconic expression, Pacoima might have made the cut.
The neighborhood in the northeast San Fernando Valley may not be as romantic as Paris, but its heart can be seen on Van Nuys Boulevard between San Fernando Road and Foothill Boulevard. It is quickly becoming Mural Mile. Walls are popping with colors from young artists connecting the streets with paint.
It's as if muralist Levi Ponce, 25, put a name on something that had already begun when he called his latest work "Pacoima's Art Revolution." The 22-by-24 foot piece, a reinvented Mona Lisa wearing a charro's sombrero and weaponry, is ready for a fight. "She has a rifle at her back. She doesn't have it at hand, but she very well could," says Ponce.
Ponce's fight is centered on beautifying the streets he grew up on. He's made it a personal mission to paint 12 murals in 2012, all self-funded and rooted in his hometown of Pacoima, or, as he puts it, "the heart of this east Valley project."
The plan is working. He's painted five murals already, each with their own connection to the community. "Most painters try to paint something internal," says Ponce. "I try to paint what everybody else would if they had my ability."
Other artists have come with the same spirit as Ponce. Kristy Sandoval, 29, and Ramiro "Rah" Hernandez, 27, have a work in progress outside of Myke's Cafe on Van Nuys Boulevard, near San Fernando Road. They plan to paint a portrait of black activist Assata Shakur farther down the boulevard. A local graffiti crew led by "Mute" collaborated with Ponce on his Frida Kahlo work and, coincidentally, added to an existing image that had been painted years prior by Hector Ponce, Levi's father.
"When you see how one paradigm influences another...it all becomes interconnected," says Manny Velazquez, a muralist who has painted dozens of murals in the east Valley over the last 30 years. Velazquez has been paying close attention to the "new blood" -- muralists under 30 who have created a buzz in L.A. street art circles -- and sees parallels between the northeast Valley muralists today and those he ran with in the 1970s. The fervor and individual sacrifice for the whole is similar. "We pay out of our pocket to empower, engage the community and raise the conscience level through murals," says Velazquez. "It's the medicine that Pacoima needs. We need a shot in the arm of culture."
That cultural vaccine is spreading rapidly. Van Nuys Boulevard now has six murals that didn't exist seven months ago, and local photographers, painters, videographers and bloggers are coming together to feed off the energy. And the everyday residents of Pacoima are contributing, even if in the simplest of ways. Like allowing spectators to get a better glimpse of the Mona Lisa that now hovers over your front yard.
"There's a connection that we have," says Rah. "Our conscience is bringing us to the realization that this is a movement now and no longer my agenda as an individual artist."
That agenda is set to spread throughout the San Fernando Valley as muralists inevitably spill into neighboring cities and connect with others rooted in the same conviction. Always with Pacoima in mind. Always with heart.
Top: "Pacoima's Art Revolution" by Levi Ponce, completed June 2012. Photo by Javier Martinez