Ernesto de la Loza's "Inner City: Kicking It" has taken a beating. Four years ago, a city sidewalk-sweeping machine scraped much of the mural's 300-foot length. Then a few months ago, graffiti writers attacked the painting with spray cans.
The mural, one of eight that De La Loza has painted in Echo Park over the past decade, is on a retaining wall along Sunset Boulevard just east of Coronado Street. Its theme is drug and drink addiction. As it rises from a height of 12 inches to 16 feet, boldly colored symbols convey the numbness of addiction, then the pain of giving it up, then the joy of having conquered it. The work took the artist five months to paint in 1993.
On a recent afternoon, the 51-year-old De La Loza stood in the sun abrading the cut and "opaquing out" the yellow-and-black graffiti with silvery gray so that he can repaint the work in its original colors. The city is paying him $1,500 to restore it, and by the time he finishes, it will have taken three months.
"Fifteen years I studied with a master to learn portraiture," he said, sweeping an arm at the smiling faces of a mother and her two children, which take up the tallest segment of the mural. "Look at the scale. It's not an easy task. Then somebody comes along with an aerosol can, and in two minutes it's ruined."
Like De La Loza's wall, the entire mural movement in Los Angeles has been enduring a kind of defacement by the hand of time and other forces.
L.A. has more outdoor murals, 2,500, than any other city. For this we can thank both climate and culture. The weather gives outdoor artists a reliable 10 months a year to work, and is comparatively kind to the finished creations. Exterior walls here tend to be of plaster, which is easier and more sightly to paint on than the brick and mortar of colder cities.
Perhaps most important, L.A. was the natural heir to the Mexican tradition of muralizing, fostered in the early 1920s by the consolidators of the Mexican revolution, who chose murals as a means of educating and inspiring the public. This revolutionary heritage guaranteed that L.A.'s murals, many of them created during the 1960s and 1970s by Chicano and African American artists, would involve and celebrate the historically powerless: youth, ethnic minorities, women.
The murals are riotously inconsistent in quality. The bland, the cornball and the emptily aggrandizing coexist with the strikingly original. "In the 1970s, the whole concept of them was as a political, social movement that wanted to express ideas and convey information and attitudes," says Shifra Goldman, a historian of Latino art. "It wasn't about weighing people's aesthetic abilities."
The city's most famous mural, Judith Baca's half-mile "Great Wall of L.A.," along the Tujunga Wash flood control channel in Studio City, is a case in point. It traces the history of Los Angeles, emphasizing the historical contributions of minority peoples. Its creation over an arduous six years in the mid-'70s and early '80s involved 400 people, most of them gang members and other at-risk teenagers from throughout the city. "You have to know how it was created to be able to judge it reasonably," Baca says.
The Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), which Baca founded a quarter-century ago, is trying to raise $1.5 million to restore The Great Wall, make the site more accessible and extend the narrative into the 1990s.
Like many older murals, The Great Wall is peeling as caustic air and bleaching sun work their will. If weather-wear weren't enough, a new generation of graffiti writers, eschewing the respectfulness of its predecessors, has been going after the murals. Government agencies swiftly eradicate graffiti from blank surfaces these days, but murals are another matter. Federal law requires that artists be informed when their works have been marred and given a chance to restore them. This can take months, which means the taggers' handiwork remains visible longer.
The very concept of murals, moreover, has been increasingly co-opted by commercial advertisers and by city government agencies. Mural advocates say the trend has been toward a public art that is decorative, soothing, boosterish. In other words, not art at all.
L.A.'s murals, whatever their aesthetic value, are a unique record of who has been here and what has moved them. Although they've achieved electronic eternity on the Web sites of SPARC (www.sparcmurals.org) and of the L.A. Mural Conservancy (www.lamurals.org), they were meant to be seen from the streets. Technology may be riding to their rescue. At the SPARC/UCLA Cesar Chavez Digital Mural Lab, Baca and her associates are working on ways to digitalize the murals, so that they can be precisely reconstituted if they're damaged or even destroyed.
The murals help distinguish Los Angeles from other places, in a category other than traffic congestion. Preserving them is a form of civic remembering, always welcome in a city so strangely devoted to forgetting.