They can be classical or contemporary, abstract or realistic, a humorous commentary or a poignant statement. And no manner where you drive or walk in Los Angeles County, you will undoubtedly soon find a mural adorning a freeway wall, public building, underpass or private residence.
Big, expansive and rich in story, murals transform ordinary structures into unique works of art. Not restricted to museums or galleries, murals are the people's art and often reflect the mood of the community they inhabit. With an idea, determination, time and paint, an artist can change a blank wall into a snapshot of history, a vision of hope or a reminder of the challenges of daily life.
"Murals are hidden gems," says Robin Dunitz of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, who explains that Los Angeles is one of the mural capitals of the world. Home to more than 2,000 murals--and that's not counting artwork that is pure advertising--Los Angeles offers artists a warm climate to work year-round and plenty of empty spaces on freeways, buildings and walls.
In recent years, Los Angeles has seen a "mural revival" with more artwork being officially commissioned for placement in subway terminals, schools, libraries and private businesses. Mural art is more accepted now than it was during the protest-fueled 1960s and '70s, when unauthorized murals often depicted anti-war and anti-establishment sentiments. Still, that rebellious nature often is echoed today in murals that confront mainstream society.
Despite the new respectability of murals, Dunitz believes in the need to keep the public aware of new and old murals. The conservancy was formed by concerned mural-lovers when Kent Twitchell's famed "Old Lady of the Freeway" was painted over in 1987. For four years, the ethereal image of an elderly woman and her swirling shawl, located on a downtown hotel wall, welcomed commuters on the northbound Hollywood Freeway. Wanting to use the space for advertising, the owner unceremoniously had it whitewashed.
"The thing about murals is they might be here one day and gone the next," Dunitz says with a sigh. "They are not a permanent art form." Here is a sampling of the wide diversity of murals found in the Los Angeles area in the form of a driving tour.
1. Great Wall of L.A. (painted 1976-1983).
Tujunga Wash flood control channel, Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street, Van Nuys. Forty panels spanning half a mile, this mural tells the visual history of Los Angeles from the La Brea Tar Pits up to the 1960s. Judith Baca, director of Social and Public Art Resource Center, brought together more than 250 juvenile offenders who helped paint various stories of struggle, such as the zoot suit riots of 1943, Hollywood blacklisting and the division of the barrios and Chavez Ravine. The murals also reflect the progress of diverse groups of the community, such as ethnic athletes competing in the Olympics, Asians receiving citizenship status and the origins of gay rights.
2. Hollywood Jazz 1945-1972 (1990).
Capitol Records, 1750 Vine St., Hollywood. Sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Society, this mural is a testament to the legendary history of jazz in Hollywood. Muralist Richard Wyatt composed 11 great jazz singers and musicians flanked by a beaming Nat King Cole. Also included are Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Tito Puente. Wyatt knew he could never show all the artists who performed in the 30-year span, so in the background, he etched names of other jazz greats.
3. Fairfax Community Market (1985).
People's Market Building, Fairfax Avenue between Oakwood and Rosewood streets, West Hollywood. "It's like a family album or scrapbook" is how muralist Art Mortimer describes his work, located in the parking lot next to Canter's Delicatessen. A collage of black and white photographs, this mural traces historical moments for Jews in Los Angeles from 1841 to 1985. Included in the seven panels are the humble beginning of Cedars-Sinai Hospital, striking garment workers in 1900, Al Jolson singing in a synagogue and Sandy Koufax pitching for the Dodgers. An intergenerational project, this mural was co-researched, designed and painted by senior citizens and high school students.
4. Korean Farmers Dance (1994).
981 Western Ave., near Olympic Boulevard, Koreatown. Created in 1984 in honor of the Los Angeles Olympics, this mural has recently changed from a single masked dancer to a group of eight Korean folk dancers and musicians. Painted by artist Dong-In Park, the mural celebrates the Korean tradition of folk games and plays, intended to amuse audiences who wish to momentarily forget the difficulties of life. Each village had its own unique farmer band, such as the one depicted, which entertained the townspeople at local events.
5. Earth Memories (1996).
Belmont High School, playing field wall on Beverly Boulevard at Loma Drive, Echo Park. Eva Cockcroft's mural is no small feat: the history of life as we know it, from the Big Bang to the freeways of modern-day Los Angeles. "It was a nice big wall, so we needed a large topic," she says of the 580-foot-long mural that slopes up from 3 to 45 feet high. Working with graffiti artists, Cockcroft and her team designed the important Earth story elements, capping off with the dawn of man represented near the end. "If you look at the background in the mural and then look up, you'll see the same landscape," she says. "In a way, we are all in this mural."
6. Party at Lan-T'ing (1991).
Los Angeles Public Library, 850 Yale St. facing College Street, Chinatown. The artist, Shiyan Zhang, is a master lacquer painter in China and lived in the United States for five years before returning to his homeland in 1993. This mural is composed of non-paint materials--including inlaid costume jewelry, porcelain and glass--and the result is a glistening piece of art that is best viewed in the morning when the sun hits just right.
The mural depicts the famous party given by Chinese poet Wang Xi-Zhi nearly 1,700 years ago. For the gathering, he invited all the important artists, musicians and writers of the day to discuss art and philosophy. The party is such an important part of Chinese art history that it is the subject of murals, paintings and artwork all over China. This is the artist's only American mural.
7. The Pope of Broadway (1985).
Victor Clothing Co., 240 S. Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd streets, Los Angeles. This impressive five-story-tall mural features actor Anthony Quinn, who seems to be taking an emotional curtain call. "I found the photo of him in the pose," says artist Eloy Torrez. "His outstretched arms seemed Christ-like, and given the homeless in the area, [the gesture] seemed warm and appropriate."
Owners of the Victor Clothing Co., a longtime clothing store that mostly caters to Latinos, commissioned the mural as a way to say "thank you" to people in the community for their patronage. Quinn grew up in East Los Angeles. The nearby Bradbury Building inspired the background arches and floor tile work.
8. Harbor Freeway Overturn (1991-1993).
Citicorp Plaza parking structure, exterior wall, 8th Street and the Harbor (110) Freeway, Los Angeles. Artist Kent Twitchell calls this the most detailed mural he's ever done: Members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra look down upon north-bound freeway commuters near downtown.
He first painted Ralph Morrison, lead violinist and concertmaster (who is the only member in the mural not still playing with the orchestra). The following year, he added orchestra member Julie Giganti. (Yes, her real name.) The middle ensemble came last, and located three rows back is a non-musical addition--Tachi Kinuchi, the CEO of Mitsubishi Electronics of America, the sponsor of the mural. Twitchell added him as a way to acknowledge Kinuchi's support of the arts.
9. Freedom Won't Wait (1992).
54th Street and Western Avenue, Los Angeles. "This mural reminds us of the early murals of the 1960s," Dunitz says. "It's raw, powerful emotions." Artist Noni Olabisi created this artwork after the 1992 acquittals of the police charged with beating Rodney King and the subsequent riots. Here, among images of lynching, police brutality and protests, are faces crying out for freedom and an end to oppression. This was the artist's first mural.
10. Hog Heaven (Pig Paradise) (1957-present).
Farmer John Packing Plant, Soto Street between Vernon and Bandini boulevards, Vernon. A truly unusual, ironic and somewhat creepy mural--images of happy frolicking pigs set in blissful pastoral scenes when, just steps away, others are slaughtered and turned into bacon, sausage and hot dogs. Hollywood movie scene artist Les Grimes worked on the mural for 11 years, then fell to his death from a scaffold in 1968. Another artist, Arno Jordan, continued the work, and today it is constantly added to and retouched. The mural has a three-dimensional look as it winds around the exterior of the 10-acre processing house.
11. Vision and Tradition (1995).
South Gate Park, parking lot near golf course, Pinehurst Avenue between Southern Avenue and Tweedy Boulevard, South Gate. Artist Jane Boyd teaches at South Gate Middle School and was stunned when her students exhibited no sense of direction--literally. "Living in the city, you don't know which way is north or south," she says.
When designing this small 3-feet-high circular mural, she created it as a compass--a reminder of physical and spiritual direction. The artwork honors the indigenous people of North and South America, including Mayans, Navajos and Chumash Indians. Boyd used her students as models, adding that they too, like the Indians here, are "looking with their own traditions into the future."
12. Spirit of Aerospace (1996).
South Bay Masonic Lodge, 520 Main St., near Mariposa Avenue, El Segundo. Hughes Aircraft sponsored this mural, which depicts the history of flight from the Wright Brothers to the space program. Ironically, the mural was dedicated the day Raytheon Co. purchased Hughes. Floating among the images of Howard Hughes and Amelia Earhart are satellites, rockets and space shuttles. "There is also a blueprint for a floating city," says artist Scott Bloomfield, who was inspired by the concept from the 1984 William Hartmann book "Out of the Cradle." "I wanted to touch the time, scale and spiritual aspects of space," Bloomfield says. "Even though it has a nostalgia feel to it, there is that mysterious future."
13. Whaling Wall Number XXXI (1991)
Redondo Generating Station, 1110 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach. The artist, Wyland, is on a quest to create a series of a hundred life-size "Whaling Wall" murals in a hundred cities by the year 2011. Painting whales is "a hobby that got out of control," he has said about the murals he creates to raise awareness of ocean life and the plight of whales. So far he has completed murals in Japan, Australia, France, Canada, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Long Beach and Orange County, putting him at about 67 completed. Here, swimming and breaching among the palm trees, are a dozen migrating whales, including a mama and baby.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Miles of Murals
1. Great Wall of L.A., Tujunga Wash flood control channel, Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard Street, Van Nuys.
2. Hollywood Jazz 1945-1972: Capitol Records, 1750 Vine St., Hollywood.
3. Fairfax Community Market. People's Market Building, Fairfax Avenue between Oakwood and Rosewood streets, West Hollywood.
4. Korean Farmers Dance, 981 Western Ave., near Olympic Boulevard, Koreatown.
5. Earth Memories, Belmont High School, playing field wall on Beverly Boulevard at Loma Drive, Echo Park.
6. Party at Lan-T'ing, Los Angeles Public Library, 850 Yale St. facing College Street, Chinatown.
7. The Pope of Broadway, Victor Clothing Co., 240 S. Broadway, between 2nd and 3rd streets, Los Angeles.
8. Harbor Freeway Overturn, Citicorp Plaza parking structure, exterior wall, 8th Street and the Harbor (110) Freeway, Los Angeles.
9. Freedom Won't Wait, 54th Street and Western Avenue, Los Angeles.
10. Hog Heaven (Pig Paradise), Farmer John Packing Plant, Soto Street between Vernon and Bandini boulevards, Vernon.
11. Vision and Tradition, South Gate Park, parking lot near golf course, Pinehurst Avenue between Southern Avenue and Tweedy Boulevard, South Gate.
12. Spirit of Aerospace, South Bay Masonic Lodge, 520 Main St., near Mariposa Avenue, El Segundo.
13. Whaling Wall Number XXXI, Redondo Generating Station, 1110 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach.
More on Murals
For a more complete list of murals in Los Angeles, check out Dunitz's book, "Street Gallery" (RJD Enterprises, 1993) or visit the conservancy Web site: http://www.lamural.org
Both the Social and Public Art Resource Center and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles offer mural bus tours throughout the year. Some upcoming tours include Murals of the 1920s, '30s and '40s (April 25), Murals of Asian American L.A. (May 17), the San Fernando Valley Tour (June 20) and the Great Wall of Los Angeles (July 26). Tours generally are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with lunch stops. They are $25 per person, $20 for members. For a schedule, call the center at (310) 822-9560 and the conservancy at (213) 481-1186.