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Down by the L.A. River, Cats Get the Brush-Up

Graffiti is rarely embraced by the public. Even less frequently is it granted government money, but in more than 30 years the Los Angeles River Cats have become the stuff of urban legend, one that was explained Sunday at a Down by the River tour sponsored by Friends of the L.A. River and the Sierra Club.

A few dozen people turned out for the River Cats tour, which took place in the Glendale Narrows section of this 52-mile waterway. It was one in a series that takes place the third Sunday of each month.

L.A. artist Leo Limon, who has contributed 15 cats to the 32 that decorate the river’s walls and access roads, was on hand for a history lesson. According to Limon, the painted cats began appearing in the early ‘60s. At least that’s when he recalls first seeing them from the window of his family’s car while traveling north on I-5 toward the zoo. But it wasn’t until 1969 that Limon began contributing his own creations to the river, starting with paint and brush and progressing to spray paint, the modern muralist’s tool of choice.

Why cats? The outlines of the river’s storm drains are shaped like them, Limon says. The doors that seal the ends on the pipes are circular in shape, with hinges on the upper left- and right-hand sides that resemble pointy ears.

As part of the city’s Youth at Risk program, the cats--which had been tagged or otherwise marred by graffiti over the years--were restored and repainted in the fall by teens from the Los Angeles area who used their own designs. While none of the works have names, there is a Hello Kitty-style cat and one that is Picasso-esque, with eyes arranged vertically instead of side by side. The city of Los Angeles recently approved a grant to paint 10 new cats and restore 10 old ones.

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The river tours were initiated by Friends of the L.A. River in June 1998. “There’s so little consciousness of the river in L.A.,” says Joe Linton, leader of the walk and member of Friends of the L.A. River. “Having people experience it is the first way to get people involved. Hopefully, they’ll fall in love with it as it is and want to make it better too.”

The next L.A. River tour will be March 21 and will explore Compton Creek. For information, call (213) 381-3570.


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