The midweek traffic along the 101 Freeway is sluggish this afternoon, but that's nothing compared to two cars along this route that have been stalled for years.
The vehicles, bright pink and yellow, are part of artist Frank Romero's mural, "Going to the Olympics," which he painted on the freeway wall in 1984. It was one of 10 murals commissioned that year for the Olympic Arts Festival to commemorate L.A.'s hosting the Games.
After years of being heavily tagged with graffiti, however, most of the murals were painted over by CalTrans starting in 2007 to protect them, leaving them in hibernation until funds were available for restoration.
At the time, Romero sued CalTrans for covering his work. But today, artist Willie Herrón III — whose own mural, "Luchas del Mundo" (Struggles of the World), is part of the Olympic series — is perched atop scaffolding in a hard hat and yellow safety vest, carefully removing the last swath of gray paint that will set Romero's mural free. Herrón's efforts are part of a project, now 15 months in, overseen by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. The goal is to restore the murals that are salvageable in time for the 30-year anniversary of the L.A. Olympics in 2014.
"These murals are the connecting bridge between street art, museums and galleries," says Mural Conservancy Executive Director Isabel Rojas-Williams. "This is our history, they tell our story. We decided we had to go back to the freeways and bring them back to life."
The conservancy cobbled together funds for the restoration from membership fees, Department of Cultural Affairs grants, private donations and other grants, as well as revenue earned from Rojas-Williams' personally leading mural tours and giving lectures around the city. The California Department of Transportation, Rojas-Williams says, has been instrumental in helping the conservancy coordinate permits and logistics, such as coning off sections of the freeway so that work can be done.
"We're not putting in funds toward [restoration] this time, but we facilitated it, it's our property," says CalTrans spokesman Patrick Chandler. "It's definitely a working partnership."
The first mural to be restored, in December 2011, was half of a diptych on the 101 by artist Kent Twitchell, "Jim Morphesis Monument." Fine Art Conservation Laboratories did the restoration; Herrón is doing the work on the remaining murals. The Twitchell mural's counterpart, on the opposite wall, "Lita Albuquerque Monument," was restored in mid-2012. Together they were referred to as "Seventh Street Altarpiece." "L.A. Freeway Kids," by Glenna Boltuch Avila and also on the 101, was uncovered in fall 2012.
The Mural Conservancy selected Herrón to restore the murals as much for his rich history in the genre as his technical skill. Herrón, a pioneering muralist in the 1970s, painted with the avant-garde Chicano art collective Asco, whose other members were Gronk, Harry Gamboa Jr. and Patssi Valdez. Herrón has more than a dozen murals up around the city and regularly maintains them himself.
"For L.A. artists to be taken seriously on a worldwide basis, we have to protect our work and it has to be up for decades, not just in a book," Herrón says. "It's about students being able to go and see your work 40 years later — to stand in front of it, live, and look at your brush strokes."
The Romero mural — with its bursting pastel-colored heart, skinny palm and Olympic runner poised to break into a sprint — is set to be fully restored later this month. The Mural Conservancy is in the process of securing funds for the project's fifth restoration, likely John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" on the 101, says Rojas-Williams. After that, the conservancy will revisit fundraising efforts.
Not all of the Olympic murals are salvageable. Murals on the 110 freeway by artists Richard Wyatt ("James and Spectators") and Roderick Sykes ("Unity") were damaged beyond repair because of highway construction in the late 1990s. One more on the 110, by Alonzo Davis ("Eye on 84") was so heavily weathered that restoration isn't possible.
"Hitting the Wall" by Judy Baca, also on the 110, was recently restored in a separate effort last month by SPARC in Venice.
That leaves just two other murals: Terry Schoonhoven's "Cityscape" on the 110 and Herrón's on the 101. He says he wants to complete restoration of the others before starting work on his own.
The Mural Conservancy follows international restoration guidelines for determining the proper water temperature and pressure to use. Herrón will touch up sections of the murals using the original pigments the artists painted with decades ago — Romero, who lives in France half the year now, even provided paint samples. A clear, protective coating is being applied, so any future tagging can be easily removed.
Herrón is quick to point out that even though great care is being taken, artistic perfection is not a goal of historical mural restoration.
"We're trying to leave them looking original, but well maintained … not freshly painted," he says. "When the colors look too bright, we cheat and add a little black or gray. We say: 'Nah, nah, let's back it up a little, let's mess it up a bit!'"
Restoration work has been done before on the Olympic murals, which were purposely placed along the most visible route to the Coliseum, home base of the 1984 Games.
In 2003 and 2004, there was a state-funded, $1.7-million restoration effort by the Mural Conservancy, Department of Cultural Affairs and CalTrans. After the murals continued to suffer at the hands of vandals, CalTrans painted over most of them. Some were left uncovered but were so heavily tagged that graffiti obscured the visual narrative.
Now, as the pictures come back to life, Herrón says, reaction from passing cars has, at times, been especially animated.
"Honking, clapping, chicks with their legs out the window screaming," he says. "People are excited."
Adds Rojas-Williams: "A lot of people grew up with them. They say, 'I remember driving by with my parents!' This is personal too."