Wyland returns his ‘whaling wall’ to its original spot in Laguna Beach

Artist Wyland adds a touch of airbrush to a whale's eye Friday as he re-creates his original "whaling wall" mural on canvas at the spot of the first one, which he painted in Laguna Beach in 1981.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Thirty-eight years after a pair of whales first floated onto a wall on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, artist Wyland is bringing them back.

The muralist is re-creating the first of his worldwide “whaling walls,” 23 years after it was painted over in a dispute with a neighboring hotel operator.

“I always told myself I’ll come back and paint it,” he said.

And beginning July 9 — 38 years to the day after he finished his original work — Wyland (who goes only by his surname) was in the same spot, paint bottle in hand.

“I’m having a lot of flashback memories doing this one,” he said.

Wyland saw the opportunity when Hotel Laguna, which sits directly opposite the parking lot from the whaling wall, changed hands in January. Local real estate investor Mo Honarkar signed a 99-year lease for the building with plans to revitalize the aging landmark.

Honarkar has repeated his intention to preserve the character of the old hotel, but some fear the effect his other planned developments could have on the town.

Bringing back Wyland’s whaling wall on Honarkar’s property could be seen as an act of good whale — er, good will.

“It’s wonderful to know that we can support this dream of his, this longtime dream that’s come full circle,” said Hasty Honarkar, Mo’s Honarkar’s daughter and vice president of Laguna Creative Ventures, a branch of his Laguna Beach Co.

Passersby on Friday paused to squint up at the mural, murmuring in admiration.

“I love you, Wyland!” said one woman.

“Thank you for sharing your incredible beauty to the world,” remarked another.

“You’ve touched a lot of lives.”

The artist, his sea-blue eyes twinkling, responded with a warm thank-you and a quip.

“It’s fun, isn’t it?” he called down to a pedestrian from his perch on a scaffold splattered in blue paint.

“It is so fun!” she called back, shielding her eyes from the sun.

Wyland grinned. “It’s a hobby that got out of control.”

Artist Wyland is redoing the first of his famed whale murals on a wall across a parking lot from Hotel Laguna. The original, which he finished in 1981, was painted over in 1996.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Between paint strokes, Wyland regaled listeners with tales of his other whale murals around the world and the history behind the Laguna whales.

“Every wall has a story. They’re like my kids. I had 100 kids, and they were all born on ugly walls,” he said with a chuckle. “I made them more beautiful. This one’s special because it was the first and it inspired all the rest.”

The history of this particular mural is nearly as vast as the sea.

As a child growing up in Detroit, Wyland dreamed of seeing the ocean. When his mother took him to Laguna Beach when he was 14, he tore off his clothes and dove into the water. As he was surfacing, he saw two gray whales hugging the shore, spouting a tall stream of water.

“It was like seeing dinosaurs — the coolest thing ever,” Wyland recalled. “Yeah, I always said I want to live in Laguna Beach.”

So on his 25th birthday, the self-described “starving artist” returned to his childhood dream town to put the finishing strokes on his first major work: a life-size portrait of the two whales he saw as a child.

At the 1981 dedication, Wyland remembered, Gordon Grant, a longtime Los Angeles Times journalist in Orange County, called out, “How many of these are you going to paint?”

The artist had planned to do only one. Instead, Wyland responded, “I’m going to do 100.”

That resolve — and the inaugural whaling wall — inspired a 27-year project that took Wyland and his collection of sea creatures to walls around the United States and several other countries, including New Zealand, Russia and China. Propelled by his success, Wyland painted each for free to help raise awareness about ocean and animal conservation.

But in 1996, the Laguna Beach whales disappeared. Claes Anderson, then-operator of Hotel Laguna, called the weather-worn work an eyesore. In a battle of art vs. property rights, Anderson won the right to paint over Wyland’s work.

Wyland was devastated. He had bought the building behind the mural to house his gallery and studio space, thinking the $1-million purchase would save the wall. Instead, he discovered too late that the wall belonged to Hotel Laguna.

A smaller tile version of marine artist Wyland's "whaling wall" mural is pictured in 2005 on his studio wall in Laguna Beach, just above the spot where the original work was painted over in 1996 as a result of a dispute with the then-operator of Hotel Laguna.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

A few months later, he erected a smaller tile version on his studio wall, just above the white-washed wall. The reincarnated mural, which has remained, depicts the same mother and calf swimming in the blue ocean.

His new mural of a family of whales stretches across 160 feet, below the tile. Wyland plans to add more fish and a reef, inspired by his diving excursions off Laguna’s beaches.

He wants to make this mural “a masterpiece,” he said. But this time, he’s being more cautious by painting on canvas, not the wall, in case the new hotel operator decides to make unanticipated changes to the place. Besides, he said, someday he’ll want to put the canvas in a museum of the sea he’s dreaming up.

Still, he has high hopes for collaboration with the Honarkars.

“I’m taking an ugly eyesore and I’m making it a beautiful experience for the people that come to Laguna,” Wyland said. “Mo’s doing the same thing with the hotel.”

One potential issue is still nagging: The artist didn’t get a permit for this version of the mural. He said he didn’t feel he had to since he had a permit for the first version and this one is technically temporary. The matter is winding its way through City Hall, Mayor Bob Whalen said Friday.

In the meantime, Wyland will keep painting the whales.