Muralists are seeing red

Times Staff Writer

Summer 2006 is shaping up as problematic for public art in downtown Los Angeles.

On Thursday, attorneys representing artist Kent Twitchell filed a claim against the U.S. Department of Labor in connection with Twitchell’s large-scale mural “Ed Ruscha Monument” -- a six-story portrait of fellow artist Ruscha on a building owned by the federal agency -- being painted over in early June. Twitchell said he received no notice, as required by law, that the paint-over would take place.

Within the past few days, two more downtown murals, Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” and Willie Herron’s “Luchas del Mundo” (Struggles of the World) were partly covered with mud-colored paint, an apparent error by a Caltrans work crew cleaning up graffiti.

A Caltrans spokeswoman described the covering as a mistake and said plans are in place to remove the paint next week. Because of a protective coating, she said, the removal process will not affect the artwork.


Although Caltrans officials were seeking the input of the artists about restoring the freeway murals, Twitchell’s attorney said no such communication has taken place with the Labor Department about “Ed Ruscha Monument,” at 1031 S. Hill St., near Olympic Boulevard.

The attorney, Les Weinstein of the Pasadena law firm Sheldon & Mak, said Twitchell is seeking damages of $5.5 million, which includes the cost of restoration work.

In matters involving federal agencies, the law requires the filing of a claim before a lawsuit can be filed. Weinstein said the claim filed Thursday was the first step in the process and that a lawsuit will be filed “if the Department of Labor fails to promptly acknowledge and meet its responsibilities.”

Reached by phone, Twitchell said: “All the law is, is something that enforces us to have good manners. Whether it’s a stop sign or a law against murder, it exists because some people will not have good manners and will not act in a civilized way.

“People have to realize that you just don’t paint out a work of public art.”

With the Romero and Herron murals -- both created in 1984 for the Olympic Arts Festival and situated along the northbound side of the 101 Freeway near the Alameda exit -- Caltrans spokeswoman Judy Gish said, “What happened was, somebody was cleaning the walls in that area, and they just unfortunately kept on going.”

Gish said that Caltrans, which provided Los Angeles a $1.7-million grant for a large-scale freeway mural restoration project that began in 2003, is “not in the mural destruction business.”

But Herron said a conservation assessment is necessary before any paint removal is attempted. “It might not be safe to water-blast it,” he said.


He added that there are several layers of paint, protective coating and graffiti on the works and that “adding a layer of ‘gray wash’ didn’t make the situation any better” in terms of removal.

Romero, who was working in Paris, could not be reached for comment.

But art consultant Patrick Ela, a colleague and occasional spokesman for the artist, was philosophical about the risks involved in creating public art.

“What is the duration of public art?” Ela asked rhetorically Thursday. “Most people think that public monuments should exist in perpetuity, but some people think that public art has a ‘shelf life,’ for lack of a better word, of 10 to 25 years.


“The entity that commissions the work has a responsibility to maintain it for a reasonable period of time, but beyond that period, maybe the piece should be allowed to die. When you paint on concrete, with sun exposure, there is an inherent lifespan.”