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San Diego artist sues school district, construction company over destroyed mural

Muralist Salvador Roberto Torres spoke about his mural at Memorial Junior High in September.
Muralist Salvador Roberto Torres spoke to the press about saving a mural he painted at San Diego’s Memorial Preparatory School. The artwork was demolished last September.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A renowned San Diego artist who watched in September as an excavator demolished his 32-year-old mural at a Logan Heights school has sued San Diego Unified School District and a construction company over the artwork’s destruction.

Salvador Roberto Torres painted the mural in the late 1980s on an outdoor wall at Memorial Preparatory School. The 75-by-45-foot artwork depicted diverse students, graduates, veterans of World War I and Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

The campus is undergoing construction to transform the elementary and middle school into a K-12 complex. The building with Torres’ mural was torn down Sept. 23.

The nine-page suit, filed last week in San Diego federal court, alleges that the school district did not notify Torres about the mural’s demolition.

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Construction crews tore down a building with artwork by Salvador Torres at Memorial Junior High School on Sept. 23.
Despite protests, construction crews tore down a building with artwork by muralist Salvador Roberto Torres at Memorial Prep in Logan Heights.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

It also alleges that the mural could have been removed without being destroyed, using a method known as the Strappo technique, which “only requires removing the film or outermost layer of the surface composed of the paint,” according to the suit.

The complaint is asking that the issue be resolved in a jury trial. Torres is seeking unspecified monetary damages.

In an email Tuesday, a spokeswoman said the school district does not comment on pending litigation.

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Torres, artists and community members unsuccessfully rallied last year to stop the demolition. One resident held a sit-in protest at the site before being taken away by police officers.

The mural was painted by influential artist Salvador Roberto Torres, who helped create Chicano Park and Centro Cultural de la Raza

Community members who advocated for the mural said at the time that the artwork was an important part of the community’s history and culture.

In September, San Diego Unified officials said the mural could not be saved because it was painted on a classroom building that contained asbestos. They noted that the mural was documented in high-resolution color and black-and-white photos, which would be housed at the San Diego History Center and the UC Santa Barbara Library Special Research Collections.

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The suit alleges that this action by the district violated Torres’ rights.

“The school district, at the very moment it had just dishonored the artist with mutilation and destruction of the Mural, brazenly announced its intent to also infringe the copyright in the Mural, exclusively held by [Torres], by making or having unauthorized, bogus copies made,” the suit states.

Torres’ mural is one of several at the campus that were painted by San Diego artists and were slated for demolition. Other artists have spent months advocating for their works after Torres’ mural was destroyed.

Artists Salvador “Sal” Barajas and Mario Torero obtained an attorney and sought help from art conservator Nathan Zakheim to negotiate with the school district in November.

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Zakheim, who is based in Los Angeles, estimates that Torres’ mural was worth at least $4 million, based on the value of his easel paintings and adjusted for size. He estimates that the remaining murals are worth more than $600,000.

San Diego Unified spokeswoman Jamie Ries said one mural has been preserved at its current location. Torero’s artwork, which was painted on removable panels, will be relocated on campus in the future.

“Recognizing the area’s rich public art and mural history, new public art and spaces for future public art are built into the new facilities currently under construction,” said Ries.

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The district anticipates that construction of the new campus will be complete in the spring of 2023.


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