Southland Sessions

Southland Sessions

Start watching
Professor T

Professor T (UK)

Start watching
SoCal Update

SoCal Update

Start watching
Us

Us

Start watching
The Latino Experience

The Latino Experience

Start watching
Key Art of "Summer of Rockets" featuring Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens.

Summer of Rockets

Start watching
Line of Separation Key Art.

Line of Separation

Start watching
Artbound

Artbound

Start watching
Death in Paradise Series 10

Death in Paradise

Start watching
millionaire still

KCET Must See Movies

Start watching
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

Start watching
MJ250sC-show-poster2x3-Bflky7i.png

Tending Nature

Start watching
Earth Focus

Earth Focus

Start watching
City Rising

City Rising

Start watching
Lost LA

Lost LA

Start watching
Member
Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Learn about the many ways to support KCET.
Support Icon
Contact our Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams.

Photo Essay: The Hand-Painted Signs and Murals of Latinx L.A

A family walks past a mural of the different Central American countires.
Emilio Carrillo painted this mural along an apartment complex 12 years ago to reflect the diverse ethnic community in the neighborhood. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Support Provided By

This article is part of a series on the history of graphic design and social activism in California, with a focus on Los Angeles, republished in partnership with Hyperallergic.


When Emilio Carrillo came to the United States from El Salvador 24 years ago, he started making friends who would ask him to paint murals on the walls of their small businesses. The 63-year-old construction worker and self-taught painter doesn't make a living off of his art, but it's a gift he's had since childhood when he would create intricate drawings on chalkboards for school lessons.

His most well-known work is on the side of an apartment building in Pico-Union. The extensive mural, painted about 12 years ago, features six panels of intricate landscapes of flora and fauna, each representing a different country in the Americas: Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador. Commissioned by the owner of the building, the idea was to honor the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, especially since the building is along the route of the Central American Independence Day Parade that happens every September 15.

In order to accurately depict the cultural and natural signifiers of each country, Carrillo says that, as he painted, he spoke to pedestrians from Honduras; Guatemalan tenants who lived in the building above the mural; his ex-partner from Nicaragua; and the owner of the building who is from Ecuador. When it came to painting his native El Salvador, Carrillo recalled memories of growing up near the countryside, where his eyes feasted on the dense foliage and colorful animals. While painting Mexico, Carrillo drew from his journey to the United States. "I came here via train and Mexico is engraved in my memory, especially the nopales," he explained.

For Carillo, painting is a source of peace and tranquility from the troubles of life. His practice is collaborative, painting elements like butterflies or iguanas based on suggestions from people who pass by. "Sometimes there are elders in wheelchairs who left their countries a long time ago and you can see the joy in their faces watching as I paint countryside landscapes that remind them of their childhood," said Carillo. "I feel like I help humanity even for just a moment."

Carillo is one of many sign painters and muralists who have helped create the visual language of Los Angeles. Beyond helping businesses promote themselves, these hand-painted, one-of-a-kind signs and murals create a sense of place and belonging for residents. From markets and barbershops to restaurants and botanicas, they've become iconic signifiers distinguishing particular neighborhoods.

In predominantly Latinx neighborhoods, signs and murals are often painted in Spanish and have motifs like the quetzal bird of Guatemala or La Virgen de Guadalupe of Mexico that connect people to their culture. These art pieces are meant to attract and honor the existing residents of that particular neighborhood, whether it be Mexican food items on the façade of a restaurant Boyle Heights, an ode to Central American countries on the wall of an apartment building in Pico-Union or a colorful farm landscape outside a mercado in East Hollywood.

Emilio Carrillo's mural of Latin American countries on the wall of an apartment building in Pico-Union.
Emilio Carrillo's mural of Latin American countries on the wall of an apartment building in Pico-Union. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Cleto Chimil is a Oaxacan butcher at Carniercia Yalalag in Pico-Union.
Cleto Chimil is a Oaxacan butcher at Carniercia Yalalag in Pico-Union. He commissioned this Virgen de Guadalupe mural outside of his market from an artist friend he met while playing basketball. The painting honors a religious figure who he feels has protected him all his life. "I feel like she's watching over me," said Chimil. "The mural also calls attention to my fellow countrymen who are believers as well." | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A mural outside a business in Pico-Union honoring Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran Archbishop who spoke out against injustice and violence during the war in El Salvador.
A mural outside a business in Pico-Union honoring Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran Archbishop who spoke out against injustice and violence during the war in El Salvador. He was shot and killed during mass in 1980 and in 2018 canonized as a saint. Aura Rodas, pictured above, has been selling fruit in this area for seven years, but had to stop during the pandemic. She just started selling again two months ago. "I feel blessed working in this spot next to this great figure, this where we make our daily bread," she said. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A mural of a farm and Virgen de Guadalupe on the walls of Virgil Farm Market in East Hollywood.
A mural of a farm and Virgen de Guadalupe on the walls of Virgil Farm Market in East Hollywood. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Hand-painted party motifs don the facade of Honduran-owned Kevin Party Supplies store in East Hollywood where residents rent tables, chairs and decorations for their celebrations from quinceaneras to graduation parties.
Hand-painted party motifs don the facade of Honduran-owned Kevin Party Supplies store in East Hollywood where residents rent tables, chairs and decorations for their celebrations from quinceaneras to graduation parties. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
La Santa Cecilia restaurant honors the patron saint of music at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
La Santa Cecilia restaurant honors the patron saint of music at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A Mariachi musician passes in front of a mural honoring Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.
A Mariachi musician passes in front of a mural honoring Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A longstanding Mexican restaurant on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights.
A longstanding Mexican restaurant on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A mercado on Beverly Boulevard in East Hollywood dons hand painted signs advertising produce, beer and milk.
A mercado on Beverly Boulevard in East Hollywood dons hand painted signs advertising produce, beer and milk. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A mural on the back wall of Salvadoran Restaurant La Nueva Flor Blanca features a scene of a Salvadoran town.
A mural on the back wall of Salvadoran Restaurant La Nueva Flor Blanca features a scene of a Salvadoran town. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A local market called "La Latina" in East Hollywood.
A local market called "La Latina" in East Hollywood. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
A mariscos restaurant in East Hollywood.
A mariscos restaurant in East Hollywood. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Gina's flower shop in Pico-Union.
A mural graces the entrance of Gina's flower shop in Pico-Union. | Samanta Helou Hernandez
Papa Cristos Greek Restaurant honors Greece in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter.
Papa Cristos Greek Restaurant honors Greece in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter. | Samanta Helou Hernandez

Support Provided By
Read More
A young woman smiles at the camera with roller skates on.

Black Angelenos Reclaim L.A.’s Roller Skate Culture on the Rinks and in the Streets

Today's jam skaters draw from a community built over generations at Venice Beach and rinks across the city.
Lucha libre posters are stacked on top of each other.

Republic of Lucha Provides a Haven for Lucha Libre Culture in L.A.

Republic of Lucha, besides being awesome, is a new space in South Pasadena dedicated to the world of lucha libre, the freestyle form of wrestling made famous in Mexico.
A triptych of people who attend a weekly gathering of Queer creative folk called Mustache Mondays.

Mustache Mondays: Documentary Wants Your Photos of L.A. Gay Nightlife in the 2000s

Do you have photos or mementos of Mustache Mondays or gay nightlife in the 2000s? Share them with "Artbound" and help tell the story of Mustache Mondays' pivotal role in the lives of a generation of Queer cultural producers.