The Politics of Murals Has L.A.'s Legacy Fading

Mural at Known Gallery being buffed out on Thursday | Photo by Melrose and Fairfax, used with permission

This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history, interactive documentary and community engagement project about Los Angeles neighborhoods and city life.


The ongoing whitewashing of street art adds to the Los Angeles' growing reputation as an intolerant mural curator, an unfortunate tag for a city once known as the mural capitol of the world.

One could make a case that it is an 80-year tradition that continued this week.

It dates back to 1932, when David Alfaro Siqueiros unveiled "Tropical America" at El Pueblo, a masterpiece that was quickly painted over by the order of Olvera Street founder Christine Sterling.

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Forward to Friday, when a graffiti abatement crew was busy restoring a mural they painted over just days before, under their orders passed down by the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. The street art style work is located at Fairfax and Rosemead, hosted by nearby Known Gallery, and features a background by Renta, highlighted with graffiti style signatures by artists Saber, Os Gemeos, Revok, Norm and Rime. The eradication was preempted by Casey Zoltan from Known, the gallery that first commissioned the piece over a year ago.

Jeff Woods, manager of Woods Maintenance Services, said they were assigned to take down the mural by Graffiti Control Systems, a business under contract with the City of Los Angeles.

Wood's crew was in the area examining the graffiti resistant coating Woods' company applies and maintains on Art Mortimer's 1985 Fairfax Community Mural.

"Fortunately, there was no damage to the mural," says Woods of the work at Fairfax "It was the first time we were involved in something like this kind of error. We were eager to take care of it."

The mistaken whitewash is a glaring example of the misguiding ordinances and city 's chain of command, says Daniel Lahoda of LA Freewalls Project, who recently arranged for the Downtown Arts District to become an outdoor gallery for French wheat paste artist JR. "When it comes to the city and murals, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing." Adds Lahoda.

The city hands know; they just are not very coordinated. Between fighting tagging, pressure from lobbying billboard and sign companies, numerous ordinances with multiple city departments has the city lose its grip with murals, especially with the street form becoming prominent in popular culture.

While Cultural Affairs handles mural permits, LA Public Works, through the Office of Beautification, handles complaints of murals that are dominated with shapes and textures from the graffiti school of thought.

Yet, before any white washing begins, there is a process of engaging with the building owner to confirm if the work in question is a nuisance, says Paul Rac, Director for the Office of Community. "The procedure at Fairfax (and Rosemead) was not followed," he says, adding that they handle the 311 calls complaining of tags, and have a fleet of fourteen contracted graffiti control services, of which thirteen operate as a non-profit: "Even if a mural is illegal, we don't just send a crew to take it out."

The enforcer is the City of LA Department of Building and Safety, who just scolded Barbara Black, a retired studio illustrator in Valley Village, who commissioned students to paint a 75-foot mural on a wall on her property.

Black was initially fined $360 by Building and Safety, and was later told by inspectors that she would be fined another $1,925 if the entire piece was not painted over, reports the Los Angeles Times. After she painted off a word from the mural that made it an illegal "sign," inspectors now considered it an illegal mural.

Building and Safety maintains that if art has no permit issued from Cultural Affairs, it is an illegal mural. If it has words, even one, it is an illegal sign.

And all it took was one complaint from a neighbor and a few threats of increasing fines to have Black end her day as an art enabler. The students painted over their own work.

As large-scale murals are made more difficult to produce and maintain, these graf-style pieces thrive on risk-taking, and in some cases go beyond an artist wanting to keep themselves in the public eye. Some grassroots projects have attempted to keep active the city's reputation as an incubator for murals.

In 2004, Stash Maleski, of In Creative Unity Art, began operating a program to install and protect murals in Boyle Heights. It was considered a success until twenty murals were issued citations; 10 were whitewashed.

That at least began a series of meetings between artists and City Hall to see if policy can be established to determine what defines a mural as "fine art," what is a sign, or what is vandalism. Talks have since stalled and no guidelines have been established.

Whoever makes these decisions may want to hurry.

In the last decade, the set of 1984 Olympics Murals on the 101 were whitewashed, including Glenna Boltuch Avila's "L.A. Freeway Kids," Frank Romeo's "Going to The Olympics," Willie Herrón's "Luchas del Mundo," and John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo." Some were restored to their full colors, only to be tagged and then painted over by the State of California and Caltrans.

The County of Los Angeles ordered Crewest and FOLAR to whitewash a street style mural in the confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco in 2008 because it would attract "a criminal element" and encourage tagging.

In June 2006, Kent Twitchell's portrait of artist Ed Ruscha on a six story federal government building in Downtown Los Angeles was painted over.

Except for Twitchell (who settled with the U.S. Government for tidy sum of $1.1 million in 2008), eradication was to abate graffiti, not a comment on content.

Helping to define street art and graffiti's place in a contemporary art history is a subject of MOCA's upcoming show, Art In The Streets, opening April 17. The exhibition, to be held at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, includes the artists involved with the Fairfax and Rosemead mural.

Still, the L.A. tradition continued as MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch whitewashed a economics-during-wartime themed mural by artist Blu, which when completed was considered inappropriate for a setting near a Japanese-American War memorial and across from the Veterans Hospital.

As of Friday, New York based graffiti writer Lee Quinones was painting a new piece for the Geffen's exterior wall with a closer collaboration with the museum.

This overlapping street culture matches the contradictions of ordinances and practices from multiple civic departments--not to mention those lobbying electronic billboard that has city officials regard as an addition to the city's art landscape.

Sadly, that all adds to the fading condition of L.A.'s legacy and its place in the U.S. mural movement that was inspired in the 1930s by Siqueiros (as well as fellow Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco).

Siqueiros may have foreseen today's art politics in the city. A revisionist street artist could paint a new version of "America Tropical" and substitute the trapped indigenous villager for a Los Angeles muralist. The armed soldiers could represent territorial conflict between taggers and government bureaucracy.

If an artist does paint that on a wall, they should take a lot of photographs of the finished piece. Someone will complain and it will be painted over.

It's a Los Angeles tradition.

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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