The Blue Lot in Santa Ana transitions from a parking lot to an outdoor art gallery and event center

Ruben Salazar is the property manager and curator of the Blue Lot in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)
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Ruben Salazar is hoping to turn a parking lot into a cultural landmark in Santa Ana.

For the last six years, he’s been transforming the space on First Street into an outdoor exhibition of murals from local artists. He envisions the Blue Lot becoming a major venue for the community to hold events. The art pieces and events seek to unify and draw awareness to underserved communities in Santa Ana.

Salazar’s mission has not been easy.

For the last year, he’s been renovating the lot since he was denied a land use certificate from the city. He received thousands in funding from community organizations to fix the formerly broken, uneven concrete and fencing surrounding the lot. There were setbacks when a drunk driver damaged 100 feet of fencing in the middle of the night in December, and wood paneling took a beating from this year’s particularly strong Santa Ana winds. Salazar had to dig into his own pockets to complete the renovations.

Fearing that the city may once again deny the certificate, Salazar hosted food, toy and backpack drives to show what an asset the Blue Lot can be.


His efforts paid off last week when the city issued the certificate, allowing Salazar to begin holding public events on the property at 119 North Bush St. .

“I just weathered through that storm, and just kept praying and just staying patient,” Salazar said. “But even while we weren’t open, I was like, how can I show the city what we have to offer.”

Ruben Salazar closes the gate at the Blue Lot in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Salazar held a soft opening for the lot over the weekend attended by city officials and members of organizations that work with the Blue Lot. On May 7, a grand-opening event for the public will feature a market with vendors selling Mexican cultural goods.

Salazar aims to host events four to five days a week. The Blue Lot hosted its first church service on Easter Sunday with the Sound community church. He said the lot may regularly host services from the church later this year.

“We want to be able to host different genres of events, so maybe one night you can have a movie night and the next night we could have a farmers market,” Salazar said.

In particular, he wants to provide a setting where small businesses and entrepreneurs can showcase their brands and merchandise without having to pay for retail space. One of the events he’s held in the past is the Gente Night Market, which showcases local entrepreneurs, artists and small businesses owned by people of color.

“We are an incubator for entrepreneurs and small businesses to get their foot off the ground so they can get to the next step in being a successful small business,” he said.

The Blue Lot has come a long way since Salazar took the helm. He said the property was “basically in ruins” when he started managing it.

The Blue Lot in Santa Ana has several new murals and improvements including a paved lot and security fencing.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

For decades, the Blue Lot was occupied by a Cadillac dealership and then became a magnet for graffiti artists. It got its name because a group of artists got the idea more than a decade ago to paint the lot blue so satellites could see it in space. There are still some traces of the blue paint on the ground.

Salazar partnered with various artists and organizations for the murals on the lot. Many of them carry social justice messages or expose unseen communities in Santa Ana.

Last year, Salazar hosted an unveiling of a mural of Victoria Barrios, an 18-year-old who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Santa Ana. The mural is meant to encourage witnesses to come forward and to send a message about the city’s long history of gang violence. City officials, including Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, and law enforcement attended the event.

Before that, as the country rose up against police violence following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the LGBTQ Center of Orange County approached Salazar with an idea for a mural that would serve as a unifying symbol for all Black people. Salazar was enthusiastic about the idea, and within a few days, a mural reading “All Black Lives Matter” was completed to support LGBTQ members of the Black community.

That mural was eventually damaged by the Santa Ana winds and replaced with a mural that pays homage to the victims of war in Ukraine. The work by artist Jim Vision is painted in the Ukrainian national colors and depicts a woman with sharks swimming around her. It’s meant to convey all the women who deal with the devastation of war, and the sharks represent war profiteers.

Another new piece conveys an environmentalist message by depicting bobcats, mountain lions and parrots. Salazar said that parrots are important to Santa Ana because they migrate through the city every year.

The Blue Lot in Santa Ana has several new murals and improvements including a paved lot and security fencing.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

The renovations have further beautified the parking lot. For this, Salazar was able to amass some financial backing to help fulfill his vision.

He received thousands of dollars from the Santa Ana Business Council, Downtown Inc., a nonprofit called Community Engagement and the Sound church. With that money, new asphalt was laid for the first time in six decades, new wood paneling was installed, and the fencing was updated. The upgrades cost more than $15,000.

Salazar has also received a lot of help from Santa Ana City Councilman Johnathan Hernandez, who he’s known for a couple of years. The councilman stepped in when Salazar was having issues getting the city to agree to open the lot to public events.

“I let the city know, ‘Hey, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, a location like the Blue Lot is going to be essential to safe community events because of the fact that it’s outdoors,’” Hernandez said over the phone. “So we have to activate this location and do whatever we have to do to get it to the point where they can operate.”

Councilman Ryan Hernandez and other Santa Ana council members unveil the Victoria Barrios mural.
Councilman Ryan Hernandez, left, and other council members unveil the Victoria Barrios mural at the Blue Lot.
(Spencer Grant)

Hernandez said he directed city staff to work with Salazar to come up with a plan to repair the property enough so that it could open for public events. He said the city’s issues were that the fencing wasn’t up to code, and the pavement was uneven.

Hernandez was instrumental in organizing the mural of Victoria Barrios and the unveiling event. He also helped put together charity drives.

“Whatever Ruben’s going to do, I’m going to back him up,” Hernandez said. “Ruben knows what the community’s needs are, and he’s using the Blue Lot for that.”

Similarly to Salazar, Hernandez thinks that the Blue Lot’s art and events represent and support the people of Santa Ana and their ideals.

“I think it’s a very accurate depiction of what Santa Ana is made up of — good hearted, forward-thinking people that are accepting of each other,” Hernandez said. “That’s why the murals are so diverse. It’s not about doing what’s cool or being hip, it’s about what’s important in Santa Ana, and what’s important to Santa Ana you’ll see at the Blue Lot.

“Funk is important to us. Family is important to us. Culture is important to us. Protecting our children, diversity, inclusion, respect, protecting our wildlife, these are all things that are on walls at the Blue Lot.”

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