Mural art pops up again in Los Angeles

I am a big fan of L.A.’s  murals and have been rooting for their survival for years. I’ve had the honor of interviewing the city’s best.  Recently, I interviewed a few from a new generation of muralists who are bringing their vision to the northeast section of the San Fernando Valley,  which includes Pacoima,  Sun Valley,  Sylmar, and Panorama City. Businesses are allowing muralists to paint their walls as a way to stand-out and celebrate art. It’s illegal right now,  but the city law is a bit fuzzy. Above, muralist Rah paints a mural in Pacoima (photo by April Aguirre, creator of Below: Image of Frida Kahlo,  by Levi Ponce. Photo by David Crane:  From my story (Daily News, June, 2012):

PACOIMA – Levi Ponce wants art to pop from the plain brick walls of businesses that line busy Van Nuys Boulevard.

On those walls, he envisions the faces of community heroes, bold images that define the present struggles of the neighborhood, and scenes of proud moments in the history of a people.

“I want to bring art to people who are underexposed to it,” said Ponce, 24, an animation artist and muralist. “I want to make Pacoima a prominent voice in the arts.”

For the last several months, Ponce and a handful of other muralists and graffiti artists from the Northeast Valley have infused the community with public artwork.

On the side of a travel agency near 13403 Van Nuys Blvd., Ponce painted a hulking portrait of Danny Trejo, a Pacoima native who transformed himself from drug addict and thief to actor (star of “Machete”) and community activist. Just a few blocks north, Ponce used his brushes to paint Frida Kahlo’s portrait alongside Huaraches y Quesadillas Chayito restaurant.

His recent works and those of others in Pacoima are part of a wider trend across Los Angeles. Just a few years ago, the legally sanctioned murals that were painted along freeway soundwalls, in housing developments, and on government buildings began to get tagged and were fading. Now, a new generation of street artists are no longer waiting for commissions or permission. And, some say, the work is more broadly respected and accepted.

“I think what’s happening in the Northeast Valley is what’s happening in the rest of L.A,” said Stefano Bloch, a lecturer within the urban planning studies at California State University, Northridge.

Bloch’s doctoral dissertation examined the history of Los Angeles’ muralists, from the Mexican movement on.

Once, graffiti gave the impression that a neighborhood was in decline, Bloch said. But over time, the impression of what constitutes a safe, desirable neighborhood has changed.

The new works, often done illegally on the walls of businesses or along public property, are created and cared for by what he calls graffiti muralists who are from the neighborhood. The work gives communities an edge that lure residents looking for up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as Echo Park and Silver Lake. It also signals a safe neighborhood, suggesting that an artist took his or her time at the wall, and no gang members interfered.

“As long as communities value this do-it-yourself ethic, which is maintaining the murals, then they will respect it,” Bloch said.

But that again could change. In July, the city’s planning department is expected to vote on a mural ordinance that will raise such questions as where murals can legally be painted, what determines art and freedom of expression, and who will maintain them.

Such an ordinance may turn many artists away, Bloch said, because the spirit of the movement is based on the illegal act itself.

Others, such as Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, one of a handful of council members who has championed recent discussions on murals and an ordinance, said he would like the city to become a museum without walls.

“I grew up in East L.A., where there were so many murals around me at the time,” Huizar said. “I would look at the images and think what is that about? It sparked my interest in my own culture and it beautifies communities.”

Huizar said a mural ban in 2002 as well as the lack in city funding may have contributed to the deterioration of the murals.

“We started a mural movement in the U.S. and it’s a shame -we don’t even allow them to go up anymore.”

In the last 10 years, L.A.’s iconic murals, the giant depictions of stories of society, politics, and culture that placed the city in a special class alongside Mexico City, Berlin and Paris, began to disappear.

The city-sanctioned artwork of the Los Angeles marathon runners, the faces of Aztecs, cowboys, migrant workers and even neighborhood children vanished under layers of tagging. Booster clubs, the state Department of Transportation, and other civic groups tried to clean the work, but funds were never enough. As a result, 60 percent of the murals painted in the 1960s and 1970s are estimated to be gone.


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