In its heyday 60 years ago, the Belmont Tunnel was a prime passageway into Los Angeles, an early experiment in using a subway to move people across the city. Thousands of Red Car trolley passengers traversed it daily in their journey between downtown and Hollywood.
Today, the darkened tunnel set into a hill just west of downtown’s gleaming skyscrapers is an outpost of urban decay.
The ground is littered with garbage and spray-paint cans. A building that once served as an electric substation for the trolleys is now a hollow, reeking, concrete shell. And nearly every bit of paintable surface -- walls, rails, even the bark on a few scruffy trees -- is covered with graffiti.
The land has sat for decades as a sort of no-man’s land -- a place for homeless people to sleep, taggers to use as a canvas and drug addicts to shoot up. Then, earlier this year, the new property owner proposed tearing down the tunnel and replacing it with a 276-unit apartment complex.
The plan has sparked a growing movement to preserve the tunnel, not as a relic of the past, but as a monument to Los Angeles’ underground graffiti culture. Today the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to grant cultural landmark status to the tunnel -- a key step in efforts to save it.
The tunnel’s fate reflects the tricky embrace of graffiti by the art world and popular culture. The issue comes up even as some -- including Police Chief William J. Bratton -- argue that tagging is nothing more than vandalism and often a precursor to more serious crimes. In the end, the preservation effort may end up giving the Belmont lot a mainstream legitimacy that could turn away taggers who feel that their work in its purest form must be unsanctioned and illegal.
Since the early 1980s, the tunnel has been the internationally recognized epicenter of West Coast graffiti. Many of the lot’s constantly replenished murals have been featured in magazines, photography books, art history textbooks and documentaries. Taggers come from all over -- San Francisco, Chicago, New York, London -- to paint there and document the murals. Art students from Japan make the pilgrimage to the lot where 2nd Street and Glendale Boulevard meet in the shadow of downtown to soak up the atmosphere.
“One could easily oversimplify this place and call it an urban ruin, but it’s actually a monument to a very unique moment in the city’s history in the ‘20s and then to the survival and future of its neighborhood life,” said Norman Klein, an author and urban theorist at the California Institute of the Arts, who has given his students and others tours of the site.
The tunnel has seeped into popular culture as the gritty setting for numerous movies, TV shows and music videos.
“It’s beautiful in its own, odd way. It’s a real piece of Americana, but L.A. Americana with the graffiti walls,” said Stevie Nelson, a Hollywood location scout who has worked at the Belmont lot during shooting for various projects, including the films “Deep Cover” and “Where the Day Takes You.”
That exposure, however, may end up having the same effect as bulldozers, with some veteran taggers saying the tunnel is slowly being stripped of its supposed authenticity.
Unit One, who runs the popular L.A. graffiti website www.50mmlosangeles.com, says that when out-of-town taggers e-mail him asking how to find the tunnel, he declines the requests.
“The reason that Belmont’s cool is because not every Joe can go down there and paint. There’s gangsters, there’s cops,” said Unit, who, like most other taggers, declines to use his real name. “When you take that away, everyone’s going to go down there.”
Decades before Los Angeles began building its modern light rail-subway system, the Belmont Tunnel was the city’s first foray into underground transit.
By the 1920s, the city’s 1,100-mile Pacific Electric trolley system competed for space on downtown’s bustling streets with an increasing number of automobiles. To avoid the downtown traffic, the “Hollywood Subway” was built for lines headed toward Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and Burbank.
The trolley system succumbed to the postwar freeway age. The last Red Car to roll through the tunnel on June 19, 1955, carried a sign that read “To Oblivion.”
Over time, the tracks were removed. The old electrical substation building lay hollow and empty.
In 1967, the city filled in part of the tunnel to accommodate the foundations for the Bonaventure Hotel. The vacant Toluca Yard, as it was known, attracted squatters and drug dealers. Gangs moved in.
Historians believe not much of anything significant happened at the lot until late 1984, when a budding graffiti tagger named Shandu “discovered” it.
Shandu, whose real name is Hector Calderon, was a 17-year-old senior at Belmont High School when the graffiti phenomenon exploded in Southern California. Calderon is credited with painting the first large-scale graffiti “piece” in the Belmont Tunnel that year. It read “Risko City.”
“It was just one of those things where nobody knew about it. We could do anything,” said Calderon, now a 37-year-old married father of two and a professional graphic artist.
With time, the lot became both a makeshift graffiti art gallery and a meeting point for taggers.
And practically since the beginning, the flamboyant “Wild Style” lettering of the Belmont site’s graffiti murals has attracted attention from outsiders.
Graffiti documentary filmmaker Bob Bryan has given several tours of the site for busloads of art students from an institute in Japan. He’s also traveled there to lead graffiti workshops and lecture on the significance of the Belmont lot.
“They’re always overwhelmed by the color, the design, the message, the boldness, the public display of it,” Bryan said. “It’s urban hieroglyphics.”
Others, however, have a decidedly less romantic view of the tunnel’s graffiti.
“It might look beautiful to someone but, if there is no consent given by the property owner, then we consider it vandalism,” said Paul Racs, interim director of Operation Clean Sweep, a city agency that spends $6 million a year cleaning up graffiti.
Racs said his group spends much of its time removing stray tags from walls around town, usually avoiding the more elaborate graffiti murals at Belmont. Though he says such murals are more involved than the crude tags associated with street gangs, they still make the wrong statement about a neighborhood.
“The look of graffiti in a community really brings it down, and it’s kind of the first step to a lot of other problems,” he said.
Meta Housing purchased the property in 2002. The developer wants to build a large apartment complex on the land, with 20% of the units reserved for affordable housing. Meta Housing President John Huskey said the tunnel and electric substation would remain, but accessible only to residents.
In response, a group of activists led by Stash Maleski, a graphic designer for the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, has proposed turning the tunnel area into an art park where graffiti writers can do their work. The park, backers say, would also provide needed recreation space in one of the city’s densest neighborhoods. Maleski envisions a park similar to the legal “graffiti walls” that his arts center operates for the city on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
But to many tunnel taggers, this alternative isn’t much better than building apartments. Once part of an illegal graffiti “pit” known as “the Pavilion,” the walls at Venice are now shunned by seasoned artists who say the walls have lost their street credibility.
“I really don’t like coming here,” said 18-year-old tagger Doos, who was painting at the Venice walls on a recent Sunday. “I don’t like legal spots. It’s not the same as being on a freeway or a roof or a train. On the freeway you get a rush. What’s the rush here?”
The only reason artists like Doos still use the graffiti walls at Venice is mainly for practice. Los Angeles has struggled for years to answer the question of what to do with its graffiti.
In 1991, the Cultural Affairs Department held a symposium on the phenomenon at the Getty Museum, attended by artists, academics, homeowner groups and police representatives. The session was marked by rancor, with one neighborhood watch member calling graffiti artists “urban terrorists.”
“The whole day we just argued. We couldn’t even get to first base where we could define the word graffiti,” said Chaz Bojorquez, an artist with works in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C., and who is considered one of the godfathers of Los Angeles graffiti.
On Sunday, artists and community activists who support preserving the tunnel held a news conference on a sidewalk near the tunnel, festooning the lot’s fence with balloons. But closer to the tunnel, a group of young men with spray cans worked away, oblivious to the land-use controversy.
“If they tear this place down, we’ll move down the street,” said one of the taggers, who goes by the name Nicnak. “That’s graffiti by design. It’s made to be destroyed.”
Nicnak, a gas mask slung around his neck, was stowing his paint cans in his backpack.
“I’ll be painting forever,” he said. “If they stop making spray paint, I’ll be out on the streets anyway, with brushes and rollers.”