‘Heroes Wear Masks’: Father-daughter duo shares a message in chalk

Self-taught artist Neal Brandenburg creates 'Heroes Wear Masks' artwork
Neal Brandenburg spray-paints a homemade stencil with his daughter Ruby, 11.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

During the first week of the shutdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal Brandenburg’s daughters were bouncing off the walls.

The stay-at-home dad usually has the house to himself while his wife is at work and daughters Noa, 6, and Ruby, 11, attend Culver City schools.

“The ‘staycation’ with children was not going smoothly,” he said. “I just desperately needed something to do that could entertain them.”

Two weeks in, and the tedium had gone too far.

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As Brandenburg scrolled through Instagram, he came up with an idea. A friend in New Jersey, Sarah Chamberlin, had posted a photo of her daughter lying on the pavement, eyes closed. Purple chalk butterfly wings spread out from her sides, and antennae twisted out of her head.

Today, the family would try chalk art, Brandenburg decided.

In the garage, he grabbed a long-forgotten bag of chalk. He placed masking tape on the asphalt so Noa and Ruby could color in the lines. A few hours later, a multicolored mosaic and a “Space Invaders” alien had appeared on the street.

Neal Brandenburg is a self-taught artist.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“Hey, that was pretty fun,” Brandenburg thought. “We should do it again tomorrow.”

But the family had worn down the chalk pieces far enough that their fingertips were scraping the pavement. After a trip to Target and the purchase of a bucket of pastels, they were back in business.

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As the week continued, the Brandenburgs colored away: a flower inspired by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, an apple reminiscent of Henri Matisse, a simplistic robot. Culver City neighbors stopped to check out the chalk drawings that had become a giant montage.

“Everyone was just bored and going for walks and bike rides. There was nothing else to look at; we were in a pretty sleepy neighborhood,” Brandenburg said. “So the street art became a bit of a destination.”

A week later, the ephemeral illustrations would be erased. As Brandenburg took an evening walk with his dog in early April, storm clouds rolled in, covering the nearly full moon.

“All the chalk just washed away in like 25 minutes,” he said. “It was sort of cathartic.”

But the artwork wasn’t finished.

Lindsay Rojas walks past Brandenburg's Spider-Man-themed drawing in Culver City.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Over the next few weeks, Brandenburg began to look online for inspiration. An education lawyer by training, he had no artistic experience. If he was going to make art, he decided, he would do it well.

He found a volunteer form for Art Share L.A., a nonprofit that operates an affordable housing building for artists and exhibits art to the community. He signed up.

“I just wanted to carry paint cans for them,” Brandenburg said. “I really wanted to see people doing street art.”

Scrolling through Instagram, he found an account belonging to I Am Fake with an image of a nurse, a symbol of the frontline healthcare workers battling the coronavirus. She gazes skyward, chin tilted up and shoulders back, wearing a blue surgical mask emblazoned with a red-and-yellow “S” — the Superman shield.

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The image struck Brandenburg.

He wanted his daughters to understand this message. The strength of nurses. The importance of health. The protection of masks.

Again, the family took chalk to the street. “Here we go again!” he posted on Instagram.

Brandenburg attempted his own superhero mask. He had purchased sprayable chalk and made stencils representing Spider-Man, Iron Man and Black Panther.

Neal Brandenburg uses stencils and spray paint while creating artwork noting "Heroes Wear Masks."
Neal Brandenburg and daughter Ruby, 11, use nuts as weights to hold a stencil in position while creating an Iron Man-themed “Heroes Wear Masks” drawing in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier in the year, Ruby had taken a one-day spray-paint class and had become the family’s expert.

“I kinda taught you in the beginning,” she said, turning toward her dad. “And then you found a bunch of other skills that you taught me.”

Beside each hero, the family paints the message “Heroes Wear Masks,” an homage to the image of the nurse Brandenburg had seen on Instagram.

The chalk artwork, he said, has become a public service announcement for his daughters and other kids in the neighborhood.

“A kid comes over to see Spider-Man, and the parent has an opportunity to say, ‘Oh, look, heroes wear masks. You’re wearing a mask. You’re a hero. You’re just like Spider-Man. That’s pretty cool, right?’” Brandenburg said. “So if you’re 5, and you’re getting that reinforcement from something that you thought was neat on the street, that’s the goal: indoctrinating little kids.”

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Ruby remembers seeing a young neighborhood boy learning to ride a bike. As his mom was teaching him how to pedal, he pointed to the Brandenburgs’ artwork.

“He was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Black Panther!’” Ruby recalled.

"Heroes Wear Masks" artwork is seen on the sidewalk along Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.
A Black Panther-themed “Heroes Wear Masks” artwork along Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

One morning, Brandenburg woke to a text from another neighbor. Linked to the text was an article from The Times. The lead photo showed a woman wearing a mask while walking two golden retrievers on the sidewalk and heading toward the Brandenburgs’ Spider-Man artwork.

Brandenburg was equally shocked and proud.

“The sort of unrelenting creative energy that I’ve been feeling during coronavirus, I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “It was just all on our street and just for our little neighborhood. It never occurred to me that anybody would really care.”

He thought back to the Art Share L.A. volunteer form he’d filled out. On a whim, he decided to email the nonprofit again, asking if he and Ruby could come paint some superheroes as part of the group’s Let’s Paint the Town project.

The response dinged in his inbox: Yes!

The day before the family’s professional art debut, Brandenburg and his older daughter bought glossy poster boards and real spray paint. They decided they’d need some practice before painting for Art Share.

But as the paint shot onto the cardboard, the colors smeared. Their supplies exhausted, the two were left to hope for the best when they tackled their street painting.

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The next day, the Brandenburgs arrived in Studio City, near the Wasteland outfitter on Ventura Boulevard. They began spraying superheroes — Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther — and the paint came out bright, crisp, perfect.

Looking around, the father-daughter duo watched the other, more experienced artists as they painted murals on the building’s walls.

“Real artists,” Brandenburg mused, not realizing his own artwork was taking on an elevated status.

As the “Heroes Wear Masks” images grew in popularity, Brandenburg put together a website to showcase the art.

A passerby checks out a Spider-Man themed "Heroes Wear Masks" stencil along Traction Avenue near 3rd Street in Los Angeles.
A passerby checks out a Spider-Man themed stencil along Traction Avenue near 3rd Street in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Soon, though, it became clear the site would serve another purpose.

Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, Brandenburg realized that supporting the Black Lives Matter message was more important than reinforcing the need to wear masks.

Ahead of a planned protest near Culver City Hall, Brandenburg found an image of a raised fist on the internet and cut it out for Ruby to spray-paint.

“Doing the art with my daughter gives us a way to confront these issues, have conversations around these issues and continue an ongoing dialogue about them,” he said.

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He posted the downloadable Black Lives Matter image on his website so others could print it. Brandenburg said he hopes the art will proliferate. People from as far as Massachusetts and New York have been printing it, he said.

As for the chalk-spraying father and daughter, they said art may need to take a back seat — at least for a while.

Ruby, who plays lacrosse, does improv and is on stage crew, has a full plate. She hopes to continue art through classes, which she hasn’t taken for years.

Brandenburg began a full-time job as an attorney for educational organization Green Dot Public Schools on Monday. Art may have to be relegated to nights and weekends.

“I just desperately needed something to do that could entertain them.”

Neal Brandenburg

Neal Brandenburg lifts his hat to a mural created by Sara Sandoval.
Neal Brandenburg walks by a mural painted by artist Sara Sandoval on Traction Avenue near 3rd Street in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t know how long [art] will keep my interest. But right now, I’m still totally hooked on it,” he said. “I feel like for years I’ve been needing [an artistic outlet] and not knowing which way to go for it. It sort of clicked, and it’s incredibly satisfying.”

Though “Heroes Wear Masks” won’t be his main focus, Brandenburg said he expects the message will be relevant for some time, particularly in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order this week requiring all Californians to wear masks in most public settings.

“I think there’s a very good chance that there will be a coronavirus surge this fall,” Brandenburg said.

But one day, he hopes the necessity of wearing masks will wash away, just like the chalk in that April rainstorm.