In a hard hat and bright yellow safety vest, artist Willie Herron III crouches atop rickety scaffolding on the shoulder of the 101 Freeway in downtown L.A. With the precision and intensity of a sniper, he aims a metal hose at a concrete wall and shoots pressurized hot water at it.
Herron had already sprayed the surface carefully with a solution that softens latex paint, so the water melts away faded gray paint. A blur of orange, red and yellow emerges from beneath it. Soon, multicolored stars begin to form across a black sky, part of a storied mural that has been covered up for about 10 years — and is just beginning to reveal itself.
Herron's "Luchas del Mundo" ("Struggles of the World") is the last of six murals from the 1984 Olympics being restored by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which began preserving the historic murals, all of which appear along the 101 Freeway, in late 2011. Kent Twitchell's "Jim Morphesis Monument" was the first to get a face-lift.
Herron has been doing the restoration work himself, leaving his own for last, which he hopes to finish this summer.
"It's been a long time coming," Herron says. "I don't know how I'll feel when it's all uncovered, but it's emotional."
"To think what life was behind this gray wall!" says Herron's 22-year-old assistant, Leah Moscozo, who stands nearby watching through her aviator glasses as the mural blossoms.
With the restoration of the Olympic artworks nearly completed — and enjoying newfound freedoms brought on by the city's passing of a mural ordinance in 2013 that lifted a decade-long ban on public murals —- the mural conservancy is now preparing to embark on new projects, including repairing artist Eloy Torrez's "The Pope of Broadway" in downtown L.A.
But as the organization inches forward, the group's executive director, Isabel Rojas-Williams, is only cautiously optimistic about L.A.'s greater mural landscape.
"The mural ordinance is good, but there are still issues," Rojas-Williams says. "I'm wary about the artists not registering their murals properly, not knowing how, but I'm excited about having an ordinance that protects artists' works. It's baby steps. We're working together and learning how to adjust the mural ordinance to make it perfect. But that takes time."
When the ordinance was passed in October 2013, it was expected to spark prolific mural production in Los Angeles. But in the first half of 2014, newly registered murals popped up infrequently. Some public art advocates pointed to a convoluted mural application process.
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As of this month, that number has gone up significantly, says Felicia Filer, the cultural affairs department's public art director. Twenty-one new murals have been registered with the city since the ordinance passed; 44 new applications have been received, and 14 applications are pending.
"We're seeing a number of repeat applicants, evidence that the process is working," Filer says.
The process of registering a mural in L.A. includes a registration fee of $60 and requires the registrant to hold a community meeting to vet the proposed mural image with the building's neighbors. The building owner must get the final registration "covenant" notarized, and a protective, anti-graffiti coating — the city shares this expense— must be applied.
"I'd be really surprised if any individual artists have gone through this process," says Carmen Zella, founder and executive director of Do Art Foundation, which works with artists on public murals. "It takes a lot of oversight and management to put all the pieces of the puzzle together the way it's structured presently. It's not artist-friendly."
Zella says the required community meetings are "one success of the mural ordinance. It's creating an inclusive discussion about public art, which is so important." But the issue of the mandatory protective coating, she says, has become a particular challenge for artists.
"The city pays for 450 square feet, but that's a very small amount of space because it's height times width — about 21 feet by 21 feet," Zella says. "The murals we create are like 60 by 30 feet, and it's upon the owner or registrant to do the rest. The additional expense sometimes stops a public art mural from happening because the coating can be really expensive."
In June 2014, the city approved $725,000 in funds for mural conservation. That money hasn't been disbursed yet, but Filer says the cultural affairs department aims to start requesting proposals from public arts groups over the next few months. Some organizations, such as the murals conservancy and the Social and Public Art Resource Center, have already submitted proposed projects.
"We're in the process of getting those dollars out," Filer says. "We have to develop the infrastructure before we can send out a call for projects and proposals. It's the unsexy stuff that takes time."
"That would be a huge help," Rojas-Williams says. "We function with a shoestring budget, and we never have enough money to do what we need to do."
Artist Man One, who has three mural applications in the works and a finished, registered mural up on 8th and Flower streets called "Volar" (To Fly), is in discussions with the city about making a video to help lead artists through the mural registration process.
"I noticed that artists I knew were just avoiding doing murals or the registration process because they're afraid of going through the whole procedure," Man One says. "When I produce a mural, I usually film it. So I thought: 'What if I produce a video of me going through the permitting process so the DCA can put it up and show, from an artist's point of view, what it takes to make a mural happen?' "
Herron says he may make some changes to "Luchas del Mundo," while restoring the more than 30-year-old artwork, that speak to the newfound artistic freedoms brought on by the mural ordinance.
The original mural image Herron proposed to the Olympic committee in 1983, he says, depicted two famous wrestlers — El Santo and Mil Máscaras — wearing leather masks. He was given direction, he says, to paint the figures bare faced.
"The Olympic committee felt it was sending the wrong message, that wrestlers with masks was reminiscent of the terrorist takeover of the Munich Olympics," Herron says.
But, Herron says, "if I reveal my mural the way it was originally intended, it would show things are freer now.