"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
El Monte is located along one of the most notoriously congested freeways in Southern California -- the 10 Freeway. In a seemingly endless sprawling suburban Greater Los Angeles, the 10 Freeway is a vital artery that connects a massive number of people from their homes to their workplaces and schools. Consequently, for many drivers, El Monte is a dreaded burning red dot on their mental Sigalert map. Or for bus commuters, the El Monte Bus Station has been a kind of bus-riders' limbo where they are banished to wait indefinitely, eternally with all of the other bus-riding souls. In short, El Monte can be a place that many people try to rush through as quickly as possible.
And yet, the renovated El Monte Station invites commuters to take a few moments to rest in the shade of its modern architecture to get a better sense of this culturally and historically rich place. The subdued shades of concrete and steel grays are interrupted by the vibrant illustrations of four murals by four accomplished L.A.-based artists. As part of L.A. Metro's extensive public arts program, artists Vincent Ramos, Phung Huynh, Martin Durazo, and Eloy Torrez have explored and represented personal and historic memory in El Monte, as well as its cultural and ethnic diversity.
Serving over 22,000 passengers daily, El Monte Station is the largest bus station west of Chicago. It was first built in 1973 and completely renovated and doubled in size in 2012. This station connects the San Gabriel Valley and eastern regions of Greater Los Angeles to downtown Los Angeles and the rest of the Metro bus and rail system. In addition, Metro commissioned Huynh, Ramos, Durazo, and Torrez to make original mural imagery as part of their extensive public arts program dedicated to "integrating art into the transit experience."
Each artist's mural is composed of four steel panels mounted on the station's second level. From above or below, commuters can view the murals from each of the four open quad areas. Unlike traditional hand-painted murals, these mural images were digitally imprinted onto the steel using a chemical process using highly durable inks.
Here we spotlight each artist and their murals in this series of interviews as they share their inspirations, artistic process and personal connections to El Monte.
El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne: An Interview with Vincent Ramos
Although El Monte Legion Stadium was demolished over four decades ago, it continues to live in the memory of local residents of all ages. Art Laboe's album compilation "Memories of El Monte," titled after The Penguins song, immortalizes the good ol' days at Legion Stadium. Despite widespread racial segregation, Legion Stadium became a site where Mexican American, Asian, and white youth from all corners of Greater Los Angeles could come together for concerts with local and nationally renowned rock, rhythm and blues, country, and bluegrass musicians. Legion Stadium was also an important venue for professional boxing, wrestling, and roller derby events.
Artist Vincent Ramos narrates the legacy of El Monte Legion Stadium in a four-panel mural at the El Monte Bus Station. His mural has the bold graphic qualities of a concert poster, as well the intimacy embodied in a hand rendered drawing. Alumnus from both Otis College of Art and Design and California Institute of the Arts, and exhibited at the Hammer Musueum, LAXART, and Las Cienegas Projects, Ramos is recognized as a diligent researcher and meticulous installation artist, usually working within the parameters of a studio or gallery. However, Ramos translated his process into one that would render work for the very public, highly transitted bus station. Although Ramos grew up in Venice, CA, he has found personal ties to this venue that was once a thriving cultural scene.
What led you to focus on El Monte Legion Stadium for this mural project?
I first started seeing connections in my work to El Monte with my project in the 2012 Made in L.A. show that focused on popular culture in post WWII Los Angeles. I always start with the personal, and I'd started with Venice and my family. That's when El Monte Legion Stadium started coming up for me. So when this Metro opportunity came up, I knew what I wanted to do.
You mentioned that a lot of your work has some personal aspect. What was your personal connection to El Monte?
My mom used to go to Legion Stadium when she was a teenager to catch concerts. My grandmother would drive her all the way out to El Monte from Venice. That was the place to go if you wanted to see a lot of these musicians. El Monte Legion Stadium was one of the main venues for '50s rock n roll and R&B. She even danced on one of the local TV shows. They used to invite kids from Legion Stadium and other places to come out and dance on shows. Also, my aunt was a roller derby skater. That's an image of her on the third panel.
And my dad used to box there in the late '50s. He was a professional boxer and often came to Legion Stadium for boxing matches. The image of the boxers is one of my dad that I found at the Los Angeles Public Library while doing research.
How do you tell the story of Legion Stadium?
One of the tough parts about public art is that you can't do some of the things you can do in a gallery, like set up didactics. I had to find other ways to resolve that by using composition to help me tell the story that I wanted to tell. I have Art Laboe and Johnny Otis on the first panel on the left, who were the ones that got all the performers to come to Legion Stadium. They were promoters and they were mentors. Then I've got the panel with the country stars on it, like Tennesse Ford, Molly Bee, and Cliffie Stone. On the next panel I have some of the rock 'n' roll and R&B musicians, like Don and Dewey and Rosie and the Originals, who people love for "Angel Baby." And Huggy Boy too, who was at KRLA for many years. And on the last panel we've got the big, over-the-top showmen like Big Jay McNeely, who would drop to the ground while playing the sax and drive the crowd wild, and Gorgeous George who was a wrestler that made a big ritual out of just entering the ring. Also, I put in the image of the roller derby skaters and the boxers in the third panel. That's where some of my own connections to this place come in.
Why did you title the mural El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne?
I kept thinking about what happens after the lights go out. The night time scene and the dances at Legion Stadium. I wanted the images to have this noir-ish, sort of transgressive feel. What was happening at Legion Stadium was kind of transgressive. The City of L.A. didn't really dig all of these kids coming together, and even though El Monte allowed the dances to take place, they had some resistance to the shows too. It was a race thing but also a youth thing. In the post-war '50s, youth culture was really rising in a way that had never happened before. The adults just didn't know what was going on. Kids were going crazy with rock n roll. They were like, what do we do with this?
I know that research is an important part of your work. What was your process for this mural?
I turned into something like a reporter chasing leads all over the place, because for every image i wanted to use, I needed to get permission. Some people that were very important to El Monte's Legion Stadium scene, like Ritchie Valens, didn't make it into the mural because they simply could not be reached. Some people have passed away and others, like Little Julian Herrera who was a big part of the scene, just disappeared completely. My mother saw him perform with Ritchie Valens. So if I couldn't reach them personally or their families, I could not use the image. My process for this mural is a lot like my process for other projects in terms of research, except super sped up. What I might have done in six months for another project, I had to do in a matter of weeks. But that's just part of the process when working for a public art project. You have to work under the circumstances.
Most of your work have been installations or pieces for galleries. What was the transition from making art for a gallery to making art for a bus station like?
I usually work on very small, on table-size, intimate projects. I make small drawings. Then Metro said I had to work on a much larger scale, at least 4 feet by 4 feet, so that the images could be blown up to eight feet. I did these small pencil drawings that I really liked, and then I figured out I had to blow them up. And then I had to paint them! And I am not a painter. I'm a guy who collects newspapers and sets them up next to letters and little drawings that I make. Suddenly I have to paint these 4x4 images, and I use gouache, which makes no sense. Illustrators use gouache, not muralists. But it was part of how I figured out how to tell the story graphically. I noticed that many of the performances of the time and at Legion Stadium were very theatrical. They used large gestures with the body. The wrestlers like Gorgeous George, the musicians like Big Jay McNeely were real showmen. I decided to look at the work of comic book artist Jack Kirby. He did Captain America and worked for DC and Marvel Comics. Like his images, I wanted these to be larger than life.
You mentioned that you met some resistance to share images or stories from some of the musicians or their families and could not include them in the mural. What do you think that's about?
Sometimes people get possessive and protective. But I understand where they are coming from. Even sometimes I get possessive in that way that we Chicanos get possessive when we have something that we've dedicated our blood and sweat and tears to, and then some outsider comes in and takes over. I come from Venice where the entire community has been completely gentrified and transformed. The places we used eat, hang out and the homes where we used to live are no longer there. They are no longer ours. Everything is gone. And there's a long history of Chicanos and African Americans making music that other mainstream artists have appropriated and completely removed from their context. People think of Elvis Presely as the guy who started rock n roll, but they don't know that a lot of his stuff came from African American musicians that never received their due recognition.
I wanted this history to be accounted for. This small story is part of a much larger story.