Trying to Picture L.A. Clearly

D. J. Waldie's most recent book is "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles" (Angel City Press, 2004).

Try picturing Los Angeles; it isn’t easy. The city in the background of so many car chases rarely comes into focus. In “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” Thom Andersen’s new documentary on the city’s appearance in the movies, Los Angeles oozes menace or withers like a corpse dumped in the desert. The city never looks like home.

Seeing how other Angelenos have wanted their city seen requires some effort. It can mean a crisscross of road trips on and off the freeway and into unfamiliar neighborhoods where 1,500 exuberant murals on bridge abutments and housing projects picture a city embraced, questioned and thoroughly lived in. Since 1968, when the Chicano movement brought political muralism to East Los Angeles, and 1974, when community-created murals came to other ethnic neighborhoods, and 1984, when the Olympics inspired playful murals all over town, Los Angeles has been mirrored best in its wall art.

In this curiously private city, murals are loudly and colorfully public. In this notoriously forgetful city, they are shrines to past heroes, saints, manifestos and movements.


Painter Judith Baca, the founder and artistic director of the prolific mural-making Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, calls these murals “sites of public memory.” Her half-mile-long “Great Wall of Los Angeles” in the Tujunga Wash is an inclusive narrative of California’s ethnic communities. It was painted between 1976 and 1984 by hundreds of volunteers and reflects hundreds more whose memories make up the Great Wall’s story.

Some of those memories are fading. Time, bright sun and indifference are erasing the murals, including Baca’s, and with them images of a more fearless and vivid Los Angeles. Some murals have fallen when their walls were demolished to make way for a newer city. Some disappeared when buildings changed hands. Changing demographics have stranded others among reluctant caretakers.

Kent Twitchell’s “The Freeway Lady” in Echo Park was painted over by a billboard company, vandalized during restoration in 1992 and virtually destroyed. Frank Romero’s joyous “Going to the Olympics” on the Hollywood Freeway was partly tagged over. Other freeway murals -- Willie Herron’s “Luchas del Mundo,” Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84,” and Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” -- got the same treatment.

A “zero-tolerance” policy for graffiti made Caltrans a partner with taggers in this vandalism. Taggers wrote on murals because state highway crews were slower to paint out graffiti there. In response, Caltrans began covering graffiti on murals with patches of institutional gray paint, turning works such as Twitchell’s “The Runners” and Glenna Avila’s “L.A. Freeway Kids” into ruins more than wall paintings -- the freeways as a drive-by Pompeii, ourselves as barbarians at our own walls.

Today, some of what is nearly gone is being recovered. The Los Angeles Murals Assessment and Conservation Project cataloged and restored fading neighborhood murals in 1999. Seed money from the California Arts Council in 2001 aided the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles in diagnosing more endangered murals. The Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles paid Romero to repaint “Going to the Olympics.” And Caltrans oversees a $1.7-million project that is rescuing 11 iconic freeway murals from the agency’s own gray paint.

There are many more to be saved, but what they need to survive as a record of who we are (or wanted to be) is uncertain. Restoration, proposed by some, would repaint the city’s disappearing murals but invalidate their integrity as artworks. Conservation would arrest their decay but leave their messages hard to decipher. And it feels like defeat to take down a mural and relocate it, or paint a new version in a controlled environment (the fate of “The Freeway Lady” mural, to be re-created at a community art gallery in Sherman Oaks).


None of this is simple. It can cost $50,000 to stabilize one mural. No state agency or city department has the funding or the responsibility to save them all.

Efforts to protect the murals are worthy. After all, Angelenos are always asking: Where is home and how will we recognize it? Thanks to good luck and the goodness of the few who care for them, our battered murals strive to answer that desire.

Still, preservation is only for what is over and past, isn’t it? Once, the hot anger and lyrical devotion in the making of the murals were going to keep on educating whole communities. It hasn’t worked that way -- as artists moved on, as the stories in the murals weren’t extended.

That can be remedied. Picturing Los Angeles shouldn’t be left to the curators. Since cave paintings 30,000 years ago, people have been marking their walls with what they fear and love. Already worn on the walls of Los Angeles is what we desire most. Just go looking for it. Still to be painted by a new generation of muralists are all the things we hope not to lose.


To find the murals mentioned, go to, the website of the Mural Conservancy.