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Muralist Judy Baca On L.A.'s Digital Divide

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Judy Baca at "Hitting the Wall" on the 110. Painted art on concrete pillars were restored by an installation of substrates I Photo courtesy of SPARC

KCET Departures "Writing on the Wall" guest editorial series continues with Professor Judy Baca, Co-Founder/Artistic Director of SPARC, and Distinguished UCLA Professor in Department of Chicana/o Studies and World Arts and Cultures Department. She joins us to speak on the controversy over digital murals that was loud and clear at the recent City of Los Angeles Mural Ordinance hearings.

From all reports, the July 12, 2012 City of L.A. Planning Commissioner's meeting on the latest draft of the Mural Ordinance was a throwback to Los Angeles' historic divisive politics of divide and conquer.

Yes, fellow muralists, we do have a common enemy but it is not each other. It is corporations that claim the rights of individual personhood with resources so vast that people do not have to matter in a globalized world. The ban on murals goes into litigation because of the proliferation of billboards, super graphics and unchecked advertising. And there seems to be no end in sight for the use of every inch of space for advertising. This has created a visual glut in Los Angeles, and murals become almost invisible in such an environment lost amongst the dominance of advertising image.

La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra by Judy Baca at USC (1997) I Judy Baca. Photo Courtesy of SPARC
La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra by Judy Baca at USC (1997) I Judy Baca. Photo Courtesy of SPARC

I have long been proud to be a muralist in this city, as the designation was synonymous with being progressive and in favor of community voice; the most open minded stance. However, on July 12, 2012, a group of fellow muralists stopped the new mural ordinance passage, thereby continuing the ban against murals on private buildings in the City of Los Angeles. The most fervent goal of the group seemed to be to insure that innovation not occur in mural processes by those of us leading new innovative methods of production in muralism that include the use of technology.

Willie Herron World Cup mural at LAX I SPARC
Willie Herron World Cup mural at LAX I SPARC

They declare that a mural produced as a hand painted, fine artist-rendered, original artwork, printed and adhered to a wall, is not a mural. Only paint directly applied on the site, to a wall, is a mural. This argument to limit artist's means of production is reminiscent of a debate, a few years back, which argued that a mural painted with acrylic was not a mural; only murals painted in fresco constituted real murals, said past naysayers, and acrylic murals should not be subject to the protection of the VARA Act.

In a 1992 court case on the removal of the Lilli Ann Mural by Chuy Campusano in the Mission District of San Francisco by a billboard company, Independent Conservator and Curator of Contemporary Art William Shank argued that acrylic in public environments was ephemeral and temporary and therefore meant to be removed. (The irony is Shank is now the director of Rescue Public Murals, a national program for the preservation of murals.)

At that time, SPARC defended the acrylic mural as fine art subject to rights and protections of Visual Artist Rights Act (VARA) and California Art Preservation Act (CAPA). Murals are no longer ephemeral works because advancing techniques of preservation can insure a mural's life of 30 years or more if maintained, and that an acrylic mural could be removed from a wall and reinstalled elsewhere.

It is reminiscent of the argument used against aerosol art in which new naysayers argued that if a mural was not painted with a brush, it was graffiti -- no matter the quality and final outcome of the artwork. SPARC defended aerosol art -- and the right for an artist -- to choose the spray can as a medium.

It is reminiscent to those who argued that the camera was not a tool for fine art and that photography was not a true art form. We all know how that argument ended.

This current argument against technological progress in muralism is dangerous because it is about limiting freedom of expression, artistic innovation and evolution of an art form, which is essential to the life of muralism.

New forms will evolve with or without artists. We, as Los Angeles muralists, need to be at the center of new technology, steering it to creative applications or we are at risk of rendering our own hands and minds obsolete. This is particularly true for communities of color.

David Alfaro Siqueiros painted the first outdoor mural in Los Angeles in an experimentation with Portland cement, which was not entirely successful by the criteria of material longevity. He did it surrounded by a storm of naysayers. Yet his experimentation was an encouragement to the consequential mural movement of Los Angeles dominated by outdoor mural of acrylic paint on concrete -- the cheapest and most expedient method of application at the time.

Since that time muralists have:

  • Painted on wooden panels and attached them to public sites 1
  • Painted on polypropylene material for a large scale mural adhered on the exterior wall at LAX-United Terminal 2
  • Marouflouged canvas to interior and exterior walls 3
  • Applied murals painted in studio unwoven substrates to multiple story buildings 4
  • SPARC also digitally outputted images onto substrates and then painted them to speed a restoration and reduce costs for Olympic marble mural pillar at the 4th street exit on the 110. 5
  • Painted works smaller on canvas, and then scanned and printed to monumental scale before painting the final print on site. Marouflouged onto site. 6
  • SPARC has transported children's drawings from workshops we conducted around the country to produce one shared mural on the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott for the Montgomery Bus Boycott mural, Philadelphia, Harlem, Washington DC. Baltimore.7

All of these works would not be permissible under the dictation the paint only on walls criteria, which my fellow muralists are advocating.
It is important to note that SPARC did not participate, advocate, or endorse the offensive poor quality banners produced by State of California / Caltrans to substitute for the grand scale painted murals destroyed by Caltrans on the Harbor Freeway and 101 freeways. These "white outs" -- coined "Hibernations" in government double speak -- were a method to assuage public outrage, as if they could be recovered. They claimed that the murals were not destroyed; that they were safely hidden under paint to be later resurrected. However, a plan for recovery of the murals will never occur in the "Out of site out of mind Los Angeles." SPARC was almost alone in objecting to this outrage.

Throughout the history of muralism, and in the most contemporary developments worldwide in technology, muralists have experimented extensively with materials and application techniques, sometimes to the advantage of the art form, sometimes to its detriment. Artist innovations are attempts to answer the myriad of problems created from producing works on architecture and in public environments.

Stopping vinyl attachment of advertising graphics is a desirable goal. Demanding that all super graphics in our city are on biodegradable substrates would be an important step for the environmentally conscious. Stopping tattered banner replacement of consummate historic artworks in the public environment is also important. Stopping artist's innovation in new techniques is not. No artist should be limited in the technique he or she chooses. One technique should not be to the exclusion of any other.

Historic murals should not have to be re-registered and funds for Graffiti Removal Programs should include graffiti removal on murals by mural professionals. Single residences and mom and pop mercados should be able to receive a mural. No artist or group should be vilified for holding a different opinion, or for the influence it has because of a 35-year steadfast track record of sponsoring, producing and advocating for this art form. Advertising isn't limited to vinyl but also painted on giant walls and called "art". If the images' intention is to sell a product, then it is not art but advertising. Launch a campaign against advertising, not against an artists' hand working in community on a digital mural.

For the record, I will always be a muralist and have no intention of giving up my brush for the computer exclusively, but the site and situation will dictate my choices of materials. I want no ordinance telling me how to do my work as an artist -- it is a violation of my rights to freedom of expression.

Golden Peoples I SPARC
Golden Peoples I SPARC

1 "Homage to the Downtown Movie Palaces" by Frank Romero in downtown Los Angeles (1990).
2 "Solo Unido Un Mundo Vencera" (Only United Can One World Be Victorious") for the World Cup by Willie Herron (1994) A polypropylene extrusion substrate.
3 "La Memoria De Nuestra Tierra" by Judy Baca at USC 1997. A 3000 year old technique used to adhere canvas to walls with titanium paint, rabbit sizing or other adhesive.
4 Kent Twitchell for the Symphony work 6th Red Lion Canvas; "What I See Can Be Me" on Skid Row by Michael Schnorr (1993)
5 "Hitting the Wall: Women and the Marathon" Olympic Mural by Judy Baca (1984). Restored 2000
6 "Migration of the Golden People" Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) by Judy Baca (2003)
7 Pete Galindo, Kareem and students of the UCLA @SPARC Digital Mural Lab

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