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Column: A Black Lives Matter mural keeps getting defaced. Its artist always returns

A large red X is painted over an illustration of an upraised fist surrounded by butterflies.
A mural on an electrical box in Sylmar has been vandalized multiple times. Artist Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano repainted it for a fourth time.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano approached her canvas on a recent December morning: a curbside utility box in Sylmar that she had painted three times in the past month.

Only to have vandals deface her work thrice.

The 20-year-old took stock of the necessary materials for the day. Brushes, rags, rolls. Cans of acrylic and spray paint. Cutouts of monarch butterflies so Saldivar-Lozano could stencil them around her installation’s centerpiece: a raised black fist.

A young woman squats and uses a small brush to sign the bottom of her mural.
Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano signs her mural after making her latest repairs. The Sylmar work was commissioned by L.A. City Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Family and friends served as cheer squad and security team.

Wendy Lozano stood next to her daughter while a cousin flanked Lucia’s left side. Her dad and uncle hung out across the street; a friend manned the corner. A police SUV swooped by every couple of minutes and sometimes parked in front of the artist to make sure she was OK.

“My mom is praying to Santo Niño for our safety,” said Lozano, a 45-year-old fifth-grade teacher. “We knew it would elicit some type of controversy. But never would I imagine this. It’s out of control.”

An artist stands beside her mural as another woman gives a thumbs up and two others applaud.
Gracie Leyba, left, leaves to applause after handing Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano $20. Leyba said it was daughter Cynthia’s idea to give the artist some money for putting “something nice at this corner.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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“It’s more on them,” Hector Saldivar, 47, said of the vandal. “They get frightened about what they don’t know.”

“I get it, but I don’t get it,” added Lozano’s brother, Jesus. “I wonder if the fist would’ve been brown if this would’ve happened. Well, the streets are now watching.”

Everyone looked on as Saldivar-Lozano first applied a layer of blue paint to cover up the whitewash that someone had splattered on just days earlier. She then used a different shade to create a sunburst that subtly drew eyes toward the middle of the box. Next came the butterflies, followed by the fist, round and proud and accentuated with white lines so that the fingers popped.

The artist, her hair pulled back with a scarf, kneels before the electrical box and paints it blue with a large brush.
Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano keeps coming back. She says, “I don’t want to change my art because of racist behavior.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Cars passed by and honked or shouted thanks — except for the man who screamed from a truck: “Hey, gang members, get out of here!”

“Yeah, we’re city-funded gang members!” Lozano shot back. She then turned to daughter Lucia. “Well, mija, you’re now a chola.”

The Cal State Northridge junior is soft-spoken, more interested in Pop art than agitprop, and wants to move on to her next project. She never planned on becoming a case study for today’s culture wars.

A closeup of the artist spray painting a stencil of a butterfly.
The 20-year-old was among local artists to win a contest to beautify 39 electrical boxes in the Valley.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Now, the Van Nuys native vows to return to her first-ever public-art commission as long as she needs to.

“It’s important to see the issues we are experiencing,” Saldivar-Lozano said as she waited for the vibrant monarchs to dry. “I hope what I went through opens up a dialogue. Even in our own community, we have racism.”

This censorious saga has a happy ending of sorts: The artwork now has a protective layer lacquered on by city workers to make it easier to remove any future desecrations.

A large red X is sprayed over the fist on the mural.
Red paint defaces the mural, which was the college student’s first-ever public-art commission.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
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But what should’ve been a celebration of public art is instead a reminder of the times we live in, one where a college student has to worry about her safety just because someone gets triggered by an homage to Black Lives Matter.

Saldivar-Lozano planned for none of this when she saw a contest on Instagram in the fall for local artists. The nonprofit 11:11 A Creative Collective had received a grant through the office of Los Angeles council member Monica Rodriguez to beautify 39 utility boxes throughout the eastern San Fernando Valley with the theme of social justice.

Co-founder Erin Stone described Saldivar-Lozano’s design — in addition to the black fist and the butterflies, another side of the electric box bears the slogan “Be the Change” — as “really good.” The artist said she hoped the work would inspire “Black and Chicano communities [to] lift each other up and both see and support the issues we are experiencing.”

A police vehicle is parked at the curb alongside a young artist working on a mural.
Artist Saldivar-Lozano repaints her mural — this time with police present.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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She finished the box in mid-November, sent Stone a photo as proof for payment, and that was going to be that.

Until the first defacement.

“I wasn’t surprised because I wasn’t naïve,” Saldivar-Lozano said.

The second time around?

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“I was like, ‘Someone is dedicated to their cause.’”

The third time was the scariest. A white man with a mullet screamed at Saldivar-Lozano, her mom and cousin, “I don’t want this in my community! You better not put it up! All lives matter! Racist scum!”

The seething anger of the man was captured on audio.

Just hours after Saldivar-Lozano finished, someone — presumably the mulleted moron — came by not only to splash a red X over the fist but also to detail bloody cuts across its wrist.

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At that point, 11:11 advised Saldivar-Lozano that maybe it was time to move on from the Black Lives Matter theme.

“Emotionally, it makes our blood boil that these expressions of justice and equality are rejected by people in a community that’s primarily people of color,” Stone said. “From a practical standpoint, we have to say [the project] is still a thing of beautification. If this thing is further tearing us apart, how long do we continue to do that? We don’t have an answer to that right now.”

But Saldivar-Lozano showed up for Round 4.

“I don’t want to change my art because of racist behavior,” she said. “It’s important not to change it. It would show we’re OK with that behavior. I don’t think it’s OK.”

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Both of her parents agreed.

“I’m proud of her,” said Saldivar. “The art belongs to the community, not a vandal.”

“She understands the importance of what she’s doing,” added Lozano. “It shows her resilience to artists who feel their art is not being honored.”

The fourth painting took about an hour. Her support squad eventually grew to about 15. Joseph Zeccola showed up in matching Yankees jerseys with his toddler son. “I wish I lived around here,” said the high school teacher, a colleague of Lozano. “I’d be walking around the block every hour with a dog, and just saying, ‘I’m going to get whoever’s messing with Lucia. We’re not backing down, bigot.’”

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“I want to support because what she’s doing is positive,” said Sylvia Garcia, who showed up after hearing about the drama around the mural. “That’s what it takes to make the world better — small steps of support.”

After Saldivar-Lozano finished — the final touch was her first autograph at the bottom corner of the utility box — everyone applauded and asked for photos.

“It’s like your quinceañera, mija — strike your pose,” Lozano told her daughter, who seemed flustered by all the attention.

“It’s encouraging and nice,” she said. “But as an artist, I’m more introverted.”

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Suddenly, a beat-up late-’90s Toyota Camry screeched up to the scene, and a woman bolted out. Gracie Leyva of San Fernando said her daughter had told her about the mural.

“We need something good here, so thank you,” said the 67-year-old. She whipped out a $20 bill and offered it to Lucia. When she wouldn’t take it, Leyva stuffed it in Lucia’s pocket, with the admonition, “Get lunch! Get lunch!”

Everyone exhaled and cheered anew.

The mural has been defaced two more time in the wake of the riot at the U.S. Capitol, the last time with a paintball gun. I checked in with Saldivar-Lozano, who said she was “not at all surprised but extremely disappointed.”

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She will return.


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