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

Four 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.

Worker hang a banner with an image of a former 101 Freeway mural. Rolled up, it was stolen after being installed. I Caltrans
Worker hangs a banner with an image of a former 101 Freeway mural. Rolled up, it was stolen after being installed. I Caltrans

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."

Jupiter Galileo and Apollo replica in July 2010 I Photo by Ed Fuentes
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 Fuentes
Caltrans surveying tagging on Galileo, Jupiter and Apollo in December 2009 I Photo by Ed Fuentes

The 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.