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Drumming up support for art

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It’s nasty hot at the corner of Avenue 61 and Figueroa.

John Densmore, the drummer from the Doors, stands in the shade of his wide-brimmed hat, gazing at a damaged 120-foot mural with several other men. One of them is Luis Rodriguez, a local author who believes in his heart that L.A. and its lost boys can be saved by art.

It was Densmore, a Santa Monica resident, who initiated this little confab in Highland Park. When we first spoke by phone, he told me about how he had helped fund the mural project more than 10 years ago, so naturally, he was disappointed by its recent desecration.

Local artists had worked several months to complete the colorful tribute to their history, going all the way back to the Aztecs. The mural was dedicated to their friend Daniel Robles, a victim of gang violence in 1995, and in a neighborhood awash in graffiti, it had been sacred ground, respected and untouched by taggers all these years.

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Until about two months ago.

“I got a call from Jaime [Ochoa], and he said, ‘Guess what,’ ” said Anthony Ortega, one of the original artists along with Ochoa.

“It was like a whole bomb” of graffiti, said Ochoa.

The markings appeared to be the work of taggers rather than gang members, the men said. It was probably kids who either didn’t understand their own history or didn’t care. Ortega, Ochoa and others weren’t about to surrender the wall to young vandals, though. They immediately went to work restoring the original mural and are about halfway done.

“Diego Rivera would be proud,” Densmore said of the original work, still clearly visible though washed out in some areas.

Densmore has given quietly to local arts and culture over the years, telling me that he was inspired in part by hearing John Lennon talk about tithing.

“But I’m not going to give it to religious organizations,” he said, saying he could think of no better charity than those that help build a stronger sense of community.

The drummer, you may remember, is the Doors member who resisted use of the legendary band’s music in commercials, saying it “was not for rent.” When he heard about the vandalism of the mural, Densmore saw an opportunity, so he invited Rodriguez to join us and share the outline of an ambitious plan to steer youngsters, like those taggers, into something constructive.

The Densmore-Rodriguez connection?

Rodriguez runs Tia Chucha’s, a Sylmar bookstore and cultural center, and one of his biggest supporters and funders is Densmore. Rodriguez’s most celebrated book, “Always Running,” was the compelling tale of his descent into gang life and his escape from it, so he speaks with authority on the subject of wayward youth and how to rein them in.

At the mural, Rodriquez handed me his five-page proposal for a Comprehensive Neighborhood Arts Project. It calls for artists to band together, and for politicians and community leaders to use

new funding sources, such as a tax on tourism and billboard revenues, to support citywide art, music and cultural projects.

Sponsors and participants would include colleges, businesses, nonprofits and good citizens. Public and private spaces would become art centers, the Summer Lights program at rec centers would take undisciplined taggers and try to turn them into real artists with a little more respect for both art and their neighborhood.

The initiative raises a fair, if inconvenient, question:

How can a global entertainment and arts center like Los Angeles offer so little in the way of creative opportunities to its people?

“Over the past year, the city has lost resources, cultural spaces, independent bookstores and murals in its extremely diverse and far-flung neighborhoods,” the initiative reads.

“There are now whole communities without bookstores, art galleries or movie houses. We have to expand our imagination about the arts and how it can cultivate, renew and regenerate our economically and culturally strapped communities.”

Rodriguez and several others are spending the summer rounding up supporters and tinkering with the specifics of the proposal, trying to convince leaders that although times are tough, an all-out embrace of cultural education and arts enrichment can better the quality of life and help prevent crime. One politician who’s already on board is Rodriguez’s brother-in-law, L.A. City Councilman Tony Cardenas.

“Arts programs and extracurricular activities are being decimated more in this year than in any year I remember,” said Cardenas, referring primarily to school district cutbacks that include the elimination of summer school.

Cardenas recently introduced an ordinance that would put a 1% tax on billboard revenues to help pay for new arts programs, and it would also make some digital and traditional billboards available for public art.

If we’re stuck with an explosion of billboards and digital conversions, Cardenas said, can’t we at least squeeze some public benefit out of it?

We’d all be better off, he said, if instead of tagging walls, storefronts and murals, kids had a chance to learn more skills and put them to better use, and to compete for prominent display of their work.

“Everybody jumps and wants to make it happen” when someone like Eli Broad speaks about the need for an art-focused high school like the new one on Sunset Boulevard downtown, Cardenas said. “Then you have these other guys who don’t look like and don’t talk like Eli Broad, but they probably have more to offer in the arts . . . and they can’t get people to take them seriously.”

That’s only because there’s no room for creativity in a bureaucracy, and little political courage or risk-taking, especially under the last couple of mayors.

But Rodriguez, Densmore and I were talking about how with the right leadership, L.A. could be re-created as a place where not just community art, but gardens and food co-ops are given enough support to spring up organically and help sustain neighborhoods, change our horrible eating habits and give kids something constructive to do.

After we’d met, Densmore sent me an e-mail to explain once more why he cares about any of this.

Fate, he said, first led him to the mural at Avenue 61 and Fig. “But I’m a native Angeleno and what better ecological effort can one make than to stay where you were born and try to make it more beautiful?”

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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