Vandalism and art, writ large

Kent Twitchell's fabulous six-story mural of artist Ed Ruscha -- whitewashed. My my. Tsk tsk. What a shock.

This is L.A., after all, where public artworks get rubbed out all the time. The most famous example? The David Alfaro Siqueiros mural "America Tropical" on Olvera Street, literally whitewashed, for political reasons, 75 years ago and still riling people up today.

Given such wipeouts, the true shocker now is that the Twitchell whitewashers (who did the deed with no warning in 2006) have just caved.

The federal government, which owns the building in question at South Hill Street and Olympic, and those responsible for its upkeep have agreed to pay Twitchell a bit over a million bucks to atone for breaking state and federal art-protection laws, not to mention obliterating nine years of his artistic labors. What's that work out to, anyway? Do they figure it by the hour or the square foot of paint?

Exactly how bright do you have to be to take a look at a six-story mural and say, "I think that's supposed to be there"? Would the same folks take it into their heads to paint over Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper"? That's on a wall too. But it's inside a building. If it's inside a building -- a museum, a gallery, a home -- then it must be worth something; it must be real art.

Murals are -- were -- Los Angeles' open-air patrimony. Since the 1984 Olympics, when freeway artworks were commissioned as part of the Games' art festival, murals bloomed across town like poppies in springtime, an oasis for the eyes of tourists and the thousands of daily drivers. No place else in the world is so suited to outdoor art as L.A., and no place else in the world would be so contemptuous of it.

It doesn't help that the same sprawling outdoor canvas -- and even public art itself -- attracts the vandalism of taggers as well. When they spray paint their pathetic scrawls across murals -- the bottom of Twitchell's "Ed Ruscha Monument" had been tagged -- it opens the door to the paint crews and Caltrans cleanup teams that do the wholesale white-outs, on orders from people who can't or won't make the distinction between vandalism and art.

Artist Frank Romero was heartsick 10 years ago after vandals, in his words, "went wild" on a number of murals, including his. Then Caltrans' clumsy gray paint over the vandals' markings made the murals look even worse.

Judy Baca -- who makes murals, teaches mural classes at UCLA and works to preserve murals through SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, in Venice -- has seen her own murals, such as "Hitting the Wall," an image of female marathoners done for the '84 Olympics on the 110 Freeway, all but ruined by taggers (it's been restored).

Baca suggests legal public spaces for tagging because "suppression," she says, "is in a sense the perfect challenge for the adolescent macho male." But "authorized tagging spaces" can be as contradictory as "authorized art."

Cops hammer hard on graffiti vandals and gang connections, but artists have to help make other connections too. Artists must draw a clear, bright line between art and vandalism; if they don't, they give official dimwits and bluenoses tacit permission to lump them together too -- and that diminishes all manner of eye-worthy murals. Because not every bit of paint that goes on a wall is de facto creative. Not everything that comes out of a spray can is "art," any more than everything that comes out of a laptop is "writing."

In a letter to The Times, Twitchell declared himself to be anti-spray paint only "when it is used to cover over murals and other public art. ... It isn't the spray can that's wrong, it's the lack of concern for the rights of others."

Like some flower that only blooms for a few rare weeks, some spontaneous graffiti artwork is all the more delicious for its exuberant transience, like the palimpsest of images on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River before the winter rains wash the walls bare for another season.

But "Ed Ruscha Monument" is not one of those. I asked the man himself -- formerly six stories tall on that building, and currently standing that large in the L.A. arts landscape -- how he feels about this.

His first thought was for Twitchell. Murals are "a unique art form, putting your work out there for the public, and it's too bad when people don't recognize it." Ruscha got a kick "seeing my puss up there" on the Hill Street building. "And when you get whitewashed, that's a little slap ... an insult."

Ruscha feels "lonely that I'm not able to watch the traffic of Hill Street 24 hours a day."

And Hill Street feels lonelier for not being able to watch him back.


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