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Mural Virtue : Paintings Along Seawall Are More Than Pretty Pictures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bluff-lined portion of Bolsa Chica State Beach just north of the Municipal Pier is largely deserted. But the handful of surfers, joggers and beach-goers who enjoy the forgotten strand know the two regulars who are always there keeping on eye on things.

For 10 years, the painted images of Laurel and Hardy have stood ready to offer surfers guidance about how to catch the best wave or provide inspiration to tiring runners.

Laurel and Hardy are one of the 30 or so murals painted on a seawall that prevents the bluffs from eroding along a two-mile segment of Bolsa Chica. The murals were the brainchild of a lifeguard, and many of the originals painted 10 years ago still remain, alongside more recent creations.

To those who frequent the beach, the murals are landmarks as distinct as the bluffs themselves. From the ocean, surfers perched on their boards look to different murals as guides to where the waves are breaking best.

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The murals recall a time when surfers had to step over oil pipelines to reach this portion of beach. But now the oil pumps that once stood along the seawall and bluff tops have been removed as part of the city’s recent efforts to improve the beachfront. All that remains of those surf and oil days is an old service road full of potholes that runs along the sea wall.

“It gives you a little bit of the essence of old Huntington Beach,” said 18-year-old surfer Greg Jenkins, a Huntington Beach resident who has been going to the strand since he was a child. “These murals and that road are a piece of old Huntington Beach that no one’s touched.”

Laurel and Hardy were one of the first murals that appeared on the wall around 1979. They prompted David Perry, then a California Department of Parks and Recreation lifeguard at Bolsa Chica, to seek approval for an official mural painting program. Permission was granted quickly after the positive comments about the “Whaling Wall” mural that had just been painted in Laguna Beach.

“I thought, ‘God, we could do this whole beach,’ ” said Perry, who still works as a state lifeguard in San Clemente. “It was kind of a project from the heart.”

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The wall was whitewashed with the help of some local Eagle Scouts, who also contributed a mural. Then those in art groups and classes were invited to express themselves upon a new canvas by the sea. The only rules were that the murals had to be “tasteful,” beach-related and without advertising, because of a state ban on ads.

Over the next two years, about 15 more murals were painted, including views of a tall-masted sailing ship, a surfer and his Woody station wagon, and a postcard of a surfer that says, “Surfing Capitol of the World,” complete with a Huntington Beach postmark.

The project curbed a graffiti problem that had been developing, and also unexpectedly cleared up trouble with littering and alcohol use on the beach, Perry said. “It made it real special. It brought the whole beach community there together,” Perry said. “A lot of the people that go there are repeat kind of customers, and they take more pride in their beach.”

The city of Huntington Beach took over operation of the bluffs portion of Bolsa Chica in 1986, but the city formed no official mural policy or program, beach services manager Doug D’Arnall said. Benign neglect has been more the rule, as long as the few murals that are added each year are tasteful.

“We don’t encourage or discourage people from putting their artwork down there,” D’Arnall said. “If it’s done with a little bit of class, we don’t consider it defacing public property.”

John Burgardt is one of the artists who has recently added to the mural legacy, notably his rendition of the Rolling Stones’ colorful “Tattoo You” album cover.

The 30-year-old Santa Ana engineer was living in Huntington Beach in 1989 and saw the murals often when he walked along the ocean. With a little help from some friends, and 40 hours work over two weeks, he’d left his mark--and enjoyed some brief glory.

“People kept coming by and cheering me on,” Burgardt said. “They just thought it was fascinating to see someone doing it. People thought I was Michelangelo, but I was just copying.”

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D’Arnall said the city has never received negative comments about the murals. Beach-goers say their main complaint is that some of the murals have been marred by graffiti.

“Some of them I like, and some of them you could consider works of art,” said Sue Desormeau, 32, a Huntington Beach resident out pushing her child in a stroller along the beach. “Then you get these turkeys who come and spray-paint, ‘Joe loves Sue’ over them. If they were cleaned up, repainted or renewed, it would be nice.”

That might happen by early 1992, when a parking lot is scheduled to be built over the old access road, replacing parking that will be lost when Pacific Coast Highway expands to three lanes in both directions in the downtown area, according to Peter North, a Huntington Beach associate city engineer.

“My understanding is that (the murals) will be left in place, that they might try to beautify them,” North said. “They might even promote them more.”


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