On Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, the speed limit is 35 mph but a lot of drivers do 50, whipping by liquor stores and laundromats, cracked sidewalks and the occasional sign-spinner whose enthusiasm is wilting in the 90-degree heat.
The Bradley Avenue intersection offers plenty of reasons to keep your foot on the gas pedal: In the first week of August, the area saw three vehicle thefts, a robbery and a burglary. The San Fernando Gardens housing project, claimed by gangs and drug dealers, is a block down the street.
But on this afternoon, muralist Levi Ponce is giving motorists a reason to rubberneck.
On the baked orange wall of an insurance business, Ponce paints a Latina Lady Liberty to start. Then some neighborhood kids and muralists offer to help. A pod of whales appears on a collision course with Lady Liberty, now flanked by a herd of elephants, a bald eagle and an Aztec woman.
“Lots of this wasn’t planned,” admits Ponce, 26, who is wearing a ribbed tank top and paint-splattered shorts, a trucker hat pushed high on his brow. “But it’s always that way.”
He shrugs and dips his brush in gray. Some quick strokes, and Lady Liberty’s curls froth like ocean waves. A few more and her shoulder sinks underwater. He stands back, swaying slightly to the 1990s hip-hop hammering from iPod speakers in a nearby truck bed, and nods.
Then a helper holds up a pizza box that has been cut into a stencil of a star and asks if he can start painting.
“Do your thing, baby boo,” Ponce says.
It used to be that the walls of the businesses on Van Nuys Boulevard were battlegrounds. By night, graffiti crews defaced storefronts with swaggering letters in neon green, red and yellow. By day, building owners fought back with pressure washers and a mixture of white and brown.
Then Ponce brought his paintbrush and his powers of persuasion, winning over residents, shop owners and tagging crews alike -- and in the process turning the boulevard into a roadside gallery known as Mural Mile.
On the concrete face of a liquor store, the former graffiti artist painted “Girl With a Hoop Earring,” his attempt to “bring Vermeer to Pacoima.” Against a craft shop wall, he gave the “Mona Lisa” a sombrero and a dagger, recasting her as La Adelita, a woman warrior from a Mexican folk tale. One of his favorite motifs is a shopping cart, many of which litter Van Nuys Boulevard.
An entourage of locals grew in his wake, chipping in for paint, lugging coolers of ice water and pitching tents for shade. Police officers parked their cruisers and took pictures -- followed at a wary distance by gang members, with portable police scanners crackling warnings from their hips.
At one of his latest murals on the back wall of a laundromat, Ponce points out some tagger scribbles on a nearby shed.
“These are our artists here in Pacoima,” Ponce says. “They don’t have galleries. They don’t have schools or universities and museums. When I say come help paint, it’s like a gift to them.”
The name “Pacoima” bears such a stigma that the neighboring community of Arleta battled with the United States Postal Service for a different ZIP Code. (It lost and remains yoked to 91331.) The 2008 housing crisis left one of every 10 homes here in foreclosure, with trash carpeting abandoned lawns like a creeping mold. Manufacturers built huge factories and left contaminated soil in their wake.
The impoverished Latino community of 75,000 people experiences a higher rate of crime than almost every community in the San Fernando Valley, averaging 10 homicides a year since 2007. Part of the city is under a gang injunction.
Ponce grew up here a few hundred feet from the 101 Freeway. His father, Hector Ponce, a muralist and sign painter whose work appears on dozens of Pacoima storefronts, gave Ponce his first art projects: doors, windows and the odd sign-painting job.
Ponce and his father never bothered with distinctions between commercial viability and creative expression. Art was the Ponce family business. You couldn’t paint if you couldn’t sell, and if you couldn’t sell, you didn’t eat.
At Cal State Northridge, Ponce studied animation and graphic design, and he’s unapologetic about his reason -- It pays better “and I get to sit in air-conditioned rooms!”
Ponce began to paint murals in December 2011 between freelance animation jobs.
The old war for Pacoima’s walls had left many businesses splotchy and discolored, a depressing affirmation of long-held stereotypes about the neighborhood: violent, poor and stricken by gangs. “The black eye of the San Fernando Valley,” Ponce calls it.
His murals would have had better exposure elsewhere, but “this is my neighborhood and I’m proud of it,” Ponce said. “I’ll always rep the P.”
His first project was a portrait of actor Danny Trejo on a wall facing El Indio Restaurant on Van Nuys Boulevard. Neither his timing nor his subject was accidental -- Trejo had been chosen as the grand marshal of Pacoima’s Christmas parade, and the parade route down Van Nuys Boulevard afforded an excellent view of the mural.
His strategy paid off -- word spread quickly and the mural made the front page of the local newspaper. Trejo even showed up to take a photo.
“It blew up. People loved it,” Ponce said. “It was kind of addicting.”
Critics of the mural of Trejo, a convict and former drug addict, say it glorified violence and crime. But Ponce says he wants his art to reflect the community. And Trejo’s story could have been Pacoima’s own, Ponce says.
“If you’re a drug addict and in jail by 30, you can still be a movie star by 40,” Ponce says.
Between sign-painting jobs and an animation internship, Ponce began to drive his battered pickup truck door to door with this pitch, delivered at the pace of machine-gun fire:
“Hi, my name is Levi Ponce -- I’m interested in painting a mural on your wall. I’m not here to sell anything and it’ll be free for you. If there’s ever any graffiti on your wall, I’ll remove that for free too. It’ll be good for business and attract a lot of attention ...”
Murals on private property are technically illegal in the city of Los Angeles, but they can exist through an unofficial agreement among business owners, neighbors and graffiti crews. The City Council is expected to vote Friday on ending the ban.
Ponce convinced most business owners within the space of a few breaths. He gave extra walls to other young muralists like Rah Azul and Kristy Sandoval, who contributed their own work.
They grew up in Pacoima, and their art grows out of the neighborhood: drainage pipes become signposts, barred windows are turned into bird cages and rusty metal awnings are transformed into pretty yellow skirts.
Joaquin Chavez, 65, has been following and photographing Ponce’s work from the beginning. Chavez knows about a different Pacoima. At night, bars and house parties made the windows shake. In the mornings, he said, they lit candles at street corners to commemorate the dead.
“This used to be a bad place,” he said. “You’d drive right through. Now people stop, they look. It makes a difference.”
Ponce had another group of stakeholders to convince, those who complain with cans of spray paint at night.
The walls of Van Nuys Boulevard belong to the property owners, but each block is the territory of a different gang or graffiti crew. None of Ponce’s murals has been tagged, a small miracle in a community where even trucks get marked.
Part of the credit goes to Mute, a longtime member of Killer Of Giants, a local crew. When Ponce began on his mural of Trejo, Mute was painting a wall across the street. He noticed something different about Ponce’s work -- smooth fades and blends in place of brush strokes, and a quick but unhurried pace.
“I thought he was spray-painting at first,” says Mute, who wants to be known only by his artist name.
The two began to collaborate. Mute’s reputation helped keep the murals safe and drew the interest of other graffiti artists. Ponce put brushes in their hands.
He points to the bottom right-hand corner of the new laundromat mural, which depicts two local girls reclining in a bed of flowers. The letters “HBO” appear in the petals of a rose, the initials of a local crew.
“Sometimes they tell me. Sometimes they don’t,” Ponce says. “It doesn’t matter that much.”
Azul, who has three murals on Mural Mile, says graffiti artists and muralists have the same goal. “It’s all about getting your name out there,” Azul says. “Just letting the world know you’re here, that you exist.”
Ponce offered them another way to get their names on the walls. On the corner of every mural, he paints the names of his collaborators. It’s a space that community leaders share with graffiti artists and elementary school students.
“I always wished there was a common ground for all of us,” Mute says. “And Levi has started that, at least in our neck of the woods.”