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Color Him Angry : Artist Says He May Give Up Painting Murals in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

While Los Angeles artist Kent Twitchell has been in Philadelphia painting a 35-foot-tall mural of basketball legend Julius Erving as part of that city’s war against graffiti, he has been losing the battle on his home turf.

Twice in the last week, gang members sprayed graffiti on Twitchell’s partially completed painting of Los Angeles Marathon runners on a wall beside the San Diego Freeway in Inglewood.

On Monday, commuters could see the stain of silver paint on the first panels of the mural, on the east side of the freeway south of Manchester Boulevard. By Tuesday morning, the name of a local gang and its members had been sprayed in blue across the chests of two marathon runners, the first of about 20 figures that will eventually cover the wall.

No one witnessed the vandalism and there is little chance the offenders will be caught, Inglewood police said.

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Twitchell, reached in Philadelphia and told of the damage, said he was so upset that he might stop painting murals in Los Angeles.

“I like to look at it realistically,” Twitchell, 46, said. “If people are destroying my work, I’m just a fool to try to do it. . . . I can’t spend the rest of my life doing things that people will just destroy.”

Until about five years ago, local murals were largely immune to graffiti, according to Los Angeles artists.

Twitchell said none of his approximately 20 works had been marred until 1984, when vandals marked up his portraits of artists Lita Albuquerque and Jim Morphesis at the 7th Street underpass of the Harbor Freeway. The “7th Street Altarpiece” has been defaced repeatedly since then.

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“It’s a type of artistic terrorism, if you will,” he said. “It just goes further and further and further.”

A special acrylic coating on the San Diego Freeway mural will make it easier to remove the silver and blue paint, but Twitchell said he is frustrated by the time and effort he will have to spend making repairs.

“It takes so many weeks and months to create something and just a few seconds to destroy it,” said Twitchell, who lives in Echo Park. “Somebody can destroy much faster than I can build.”

The muralist said he still plans to complete the mural for the City of Los Angeles Marathon Foundation sometime this year. It will be 236 feet wide and up to 20 feet tall, giving viewers “the feeling of being in the middle of the track, with runners rushing by,” Twitchell said.

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When Marathon Foundation officials, inspired by outdoor works produced for the Olympics, had gone looking for “the best freeway mural artist” around, most agreed it was Twitchell, said Bill Burke, president of the foundation.

The project will cost the Marathon Foundation about $60,000, Burke said, with about a third going to the artist.

Twitchell said he will decide how he feels about doing future projects in Los Angeles after finishing the marathon piece.

Philadelphia, though, has given him a warmer reception.

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“Everybody in the city is just going crazy about the mural,” said Jane Golden, artistic director of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, which commissioned the huge portrait of the former National Basketball Assn. all-star on the side of a dilapidated building. “It’s just beautiful.”

Twitchell’s most celebrated murals in Los Angeles include “The Old Woman of the Freeway,” an elderly figure who loomed over the Hollywood Freeway until she was painted over in 1986, and a six-story portrait of artist Ed Ruscha on Hope Street.

But Twitchell said the Erving portrait, his first mural outside Los Angeles County, will be “the best mural I have ever done. . . . I couldn’t be happier.”

He is the first visiting artist hired by the Anti-Graffiti Network, whose principal goal is to turn graffiti vandals toward more acceptable forms of expression.

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Under the project, youths who admit they have painted graffiti are granted immunity from prosecution and ordered to perform community service by cleaning walls. Those with an interest in art receive training from local artists and help paint murals around the city, Golden said. The youths begin as volunteers, but those with the most experience work up to eight hours a day and earn $5 an hour, said Golden, herself a former Los Angeles mural artist.

At the bottom of each of the Philadelphia network’s 600 murals is a logo--a red circle and slash over a hand holding a spray paint can.

Twitchell said he would like to see Los Angeles start a program like Philadelphia’s. “There is hardly a mural in this city that is defaced,” he said. “That is pretty bodacious.”


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