Costa Mesa murals draw national spotlight as city is named top destination for outdoor art

A large mural on a building
Shepard Fairey’s “Welcome Home” mural at Costa Mesa’s Baker Block apartments is one of many pieces listed in a recent Men’s Journal article that named the city a top destination for outdoor art.
(Don Leach / Times Community News)

The national Men’s Journal magazine recently listed the city of Costa Mesa among its “top destinations for outdoor art,” alongside well-known metropolitan areas — Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia — and some under-the-radar spots, where murals encourage art appreciation al fresco.

“Nicknamed the ‘City of the Arts,’ it appears no canvas is off limits,” writer Ian Centrone surmises in the spring installment of the journal’s travel section. “From storefronts and restaurant exteriors to paint-covered utility boxes, the vibrant works are omnipresent.”

For longtime Costa Mesa resident Charlene Ashendorf, chair of the city’s Cultural Arts Committee, the distinction is appreciated but just scratches the surface of a vibrant, still-growing art scene whose programming spans artists of all ages and extends far beyond the walls of any one museum.

Visitors look through a tunnel made of CDs
A mother and daughter look down a tunnel cut through brush and covered with old CDs at the LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Times Community News)

“In a lot of ways, it’s really an exciting time for the arts,” Ashendorf said this week, providing an impromptu virtual tour of projects old and new.

Artist Shepard Fairey came to Costa Mesa in 2017 to produce the 7,000-square-foot mural “Welcome Home,” which he said was inspired by the “community, the rebel surf-skate culture, and the idea of peace and our need to take care of our environment.”

Similar displays of public and street art have cropped up in the past decade, appearing in office parks, concept shopping areas, and on the alleyway walls and parking structures outside businesses.

Panels on a green wall next to a parking lot spell "community"
Panels with letters spelling “community” adorn the parking lot of the CAMP retail campus in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Times Community News)

Ashendorf recalled more recent outdoor tributes to Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Dolly Parton and Orange County native Mike Ness, lead singer of punk rock band Social Distortion.

“One of my all-time favorites is ... on 16th Street — it’s beautiful,” she said of an untitled work created by graffiti artist and muralists Mac and Retna, depicting a woman haloed by the words of a prayer.

Costa Mesa became the “City of the Arts” following a 1984 vote by the City Council that coincided with the formation of the Cultural Arts Committee, whose mission is to enhance, promote and support the arts community.


Since then, the commission has awarded grants to artists, overseen juried exhibitions of artwork and approved submissions by artists for a utility-box art program that has brought about 50 pieces into public areas.

Despite its robust collection of art venues, the city spends a scant 91 cents per resident on programs dedicated to arts and culture, compared with $4.32 per person in Newport Beach and $64.68 per person in Laguna Beach, according to the master plan.

A mural depicts a living room and says "home sweet home"
“Home Sweet Home,” painted on a storage facility on 19th Street by artist Zaoone, is one of many colorful murals in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Times Community News)

“We hope the City Council will approve in its budget process ... money for us to begin to implement our master plan,” Ashendorf said. “Once we have money, we can move forward and ask, ‘What do we want to see in our city in the future and how do we want to build out?’”

In addition to murals, larger-than-life outdoor sculptures can be found in and around the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Many were commissioned by the late philanthropist and arts patron Henry Segerstrom, who provided the art pieces to the city and donated the land upon which they were installed.

Historical notes and details on the works have been catalogued by the nonprofit Travel Costa Mesa, which created an online audio tour that appears alongside photos and notes on murals and utility boxes. Spokeswoman Jenny Wedge said the group saw interest in those offerings increase in the past year.

“I think this became more important during the pandemic, because it’s something you can do outside and it’s not in a crowded place,” she said. “And it makes great photos.”

Cardine writes for Times Community News.