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There’s a ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ — the downtown 3rd Street Tunnel, that is

A woman stands in the road with her chihuahua at one end of the 3rd Street Tunnel.
Artist Tory DiPietro, with her chihuahua Fionna, as her neon artwork “The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Heart of Los Angeles” is being installed at the exit of the 3rd Street Tunnel in downtown L.A.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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There is a heart.

There is a rainbow.

And there is a dog — a teacup chihuahua, Fionna, who’s tiny even for her breed.

It’s a fitting setting for the installation of what is arguably L.A.’s most earnest piece of public art, which is underway at the exit of downtown’s 3rd Street Tunnel. The neon work, a 22-foot-high glowing heart ensconced in a luminescent rainbow, is called “The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Heart of Los Angeles.” It is artist Tory DiPietro’s ardent pandemic message to the city as COVID infection rates continue to decline. The dog? She just goes everywhere with DiPietro.

The tunnel is closed to traffic at the moment as construction workers hoist the top portion of a massive red steel heart above the underpass. (It has since reopened and will remain so.) The heart will be backlit with neon tubing that will glow vibrantly after dark. An aluminum cutout of the words “Los Angeles,” written in the artist’s script and bathed in white light, will front the heart. Several of the tunnel’s concrete beams, running horizontally across the ceiling, also are rimmed with neon, each a different color of the rainbow. They will form a cylindrical “rainbow of light” that cars will cut through, becoming an immersive, multicolored, on-the-go art experience radiating positivity and hope.

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Did we mention there are also bunny rabbits here? There’s a compact, sage green car parked by the tunnel exit, one featuring cartoon rabbits on both sides, as painted by a Venice muralist. It fits right into the surrounding medley of sincerity and cuteness.

Suddenly, the front door of the car pops open and DiPietro seemingly tumbles out, a tangle of textures and colors. She’s cradling multiple loose objects in her arms: an extra-large iced coffee dripping with condensation, jangling keys, an uncapped Sharpie and the now-wriggling chihuahua. Her brightly colored parka hood is pulled tightly around her face so that she herself is ensconced in a rainbow of faux fur. She slurps the coffee, scratches Fionna’s head with electric blue nails and flashes a smile that’s disproportionately large between slim patches of visible cheeks.

“Hiiii,” she says enthusiastically, gesturing to the construction. “So this is really happening!”

Construction workers install a giant heart at one end of the 3rd Street Tunnel.
Construction workers install a portion of a steel heart, part of Tory DiPietro’s neon work “The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Heart of Los Angeles,” at one end of the 3rd Street Tunnel in downtown L.A.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Tory DiPietro's neon work.
The neon artwork, fully installed, at the exit of the 3rd Street Tunnel.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

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“The Light at the End of the Tunnel” debuts Thursday. DiPietro conceived of the work and it was produced by former Department of Cultural Affairs general manager Adolfo Nodal, who has a history with neon in the city. During his tenure at the DCA, Nodal spearheaded the restoration of about 150 vintage neon signs in Hollywood, downtown and along the Wilshire corridor.

For DiPietro’s work, Nodal secured funding from both the city and county of Los Angeles as well as from individuals and multiple charitable organizations, including the California Community Foundation and the Weingart Foundation. The downtown L.A. cultural center LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is the fiscal sponsor. The work will be up for two years and may remain there permanently, Nodal says.

“Eventually it could be part of the city collection, the city would own it,” he says. “There’s really no reason to take it down.”

Nodal met DiPietro in 2019 during a visit to her studio — he was considering including her in an art show he was organizing, “Punk Neon.” In April 2020, during the first weeks of quarantine, DiPietro contacted Nodal and pitched her public art idea. It was a dark time to be thinking about hearts and rainbows. But DiPietro is no stranger to dark times, having grown up in L.A. with a father who died from a drug overdose when she was 15. She was thinking long-term. Optimism has always been her lifeblood.

“I’ve seen firsthand how you can live an entire lifespan of darkness and — boom — when that light turns on, it turns on,” DiPietro says. “It was very bleak [in April 2020]. But in my mind, I was like: ‘I can’t say when, I can’t say how, but this will get better. There will be light at the end of the tunnel, it will come.’”

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DiPietro, who identifies as Mexican Italian American, grew up with her father in Montebello and mother in Temple City. It was a “different kind of background,” as she describes it. Her father illegally grew and sold cannabis for a living in the ’80s and ’90s. For her family, money was like the ocean: sometimes coming in great big waves, then receding just as quickly. Some days she went to high school with $1,000, cash, in her pocket; other days she had to borrow $5 to get by or she and her single mother, who worked as a phone operator at AT&T, ate tortillas and butter for dinner.

Art was a constant, though, and it steadied DiPietro. From the time she was 4 years old, she wanted to be an artist. She oil painted on scrap paper, made street murals with friends, plastered her bedroom walls with paper flowers.

“But I never thought I could be an artist [professionally],” DiPietro says. “I was always very conditioned to believe that was out of reach for me. Because I was a woman, because I didn’t have any amazing skills, because I came from, you could say, a poor upbringing.”

After high school and one semester at Pasadena City College, DiPietro embarked on a series of odd jobs: waitressing, bartending, assisting with wardrobe styling, working as an office manager for a rain gutter company. She continued making art for fun, taking pottery classes and painting on found pieces of wood, which she’d leave on the street for passersby to take.

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Then, one night, life-changing inspiration came while eating tacos.

Since childhood, DiPietro had carried around a happy place in her head, an imagined garden of glowing plants and flowers that she could escape to. At the taco stand that night, “I looked at the neon sign and it clicked. ‘Oh my God, the plants in my head, they’re neon!’” she says. “I was 25. I teetered along for years but never [forgot it].”

A neon sign at the end of a tunnel.
DiPietro conceived of the work and it was produced by former Department of Cultural Affairs general manager Adolfo Nodal, who has a history with neon in the city.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A woman sits in the road outside a tunnel, holding a chihuahua, her face framed with fuchsia faux fur.
Artist Tory DiPietro and Fionna.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In 2017, in her early 30s, DiPietro signed up for a neon workshop in the downtown L.A. Arts District. She had $12 in her bank account at the time, she says, and borrowed the money for the class. She soon began selling small-scale neon works on the website 1st Dibs, through the store Merit and then later at the marijuana-friendly, membership-only Hitman Coffee, amid high-end glass bongs. The adjacency to the cannabis industry felt natural, she says. “I always had connections in that world, those were my friends, because of how I grew up.”

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From there, “It really took off for me,” she adds. Since 2018, she’s sold more than 200 neon pieces and has supported herself through her art, primarily selling on Instagram.

As installation continues at the 3rd Street Tunnel, Fionna is now running in tight circles in the middle of the street, barking sharply. DiPietro scoops her up and secures the dog under her armpit, like a clutch purse.

“She gets cold, scared, anxious — she’s a lot like me,” DiPietro says, laughing.

DiPietro, now 38, has struggled with anxiety and depression over the years, she says. But working on “The Light at the End of the Tunnel” has changed her.

“I’m an entirely different person than I was two years ago. I’ve grounded myself differently and maintained faith differently that I would get to my final destination,” she says. “My whole life was a lot of hurdles and hardships. When you experience so much stuff like that so young, it jades you, it hardens you. It made me very untrusting. I had to unlearn all of that, reach back into my heart and my true self, the person who would be able to dedicate two years of their life, for no pay, to do something like this.”

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She takes pride in being a woman working in neon, an expensive, traditionally male medium. But especially in doing so against the odds.

“I came from nothing and built this, and in a difficult medium,” she says. “I’m always trying to shine a light, to be the person I needed when I was younger.”

The location of the artwork is key, DiPietro says: It’s the site of protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020, and DiPietro intends for the piece to speak to social justice. Positioning the work in such a public spot highlights the need for accessibility to art.

Tory DiPietro and her chihuahua stand by the words "Los Angeles" in a white script aluminum cutout.
Tory DiPietro, 38, with her chihuahua, Fionna, and an aluminum cutout of the words “Los Angeles,” which will be installed as part of the neon work “The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Heart of Los Angeles.”
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Workers install a large red heart above one end of a tunnel.
The artwork includes 540 running feet of neon tubing, which extends to concrete beams at one end of the tunnel.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s been so important to me to bring it to the street, where anyone can see it,” she says. “Growing up, I couldn’t just go to the museum — if my mom had to work, I wasn’t gonna get there.”

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Nodal says he sees the artwork as a pandemic-era “essential service.”

“Artists are great healers,” he says. “It’s a way of healing the community and giving back these positive images that we all need.”

The tunnel artwork is just one piece of a much bigger project, Nodal says. Plans are underway for an annual street festival, dubbed Through the Rainbow, likely to debut in June. Nodal hopes to hold it at the tunnel site, celebrating L.A.’s multicultural communities with food, live music and a parade of lowriders and other cars.

Nodal also hopes to turn the “kind of dead space,” as he calls it, at the end of the tunnel — situated amid office towers and freeway ramps — into a piazza for pedestrians.

“This is supposed to be an iconic artwork for the city,” he says. “I’m hoping to convert this into Rainbow Square for L.A.”

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And when it rains?

“If the road gets wet, it will reflect the rainbow,” DiPietro says, her eyes shining. “The purple beam is right at the end, so technically speaking, when it rains, we should have some purple rain.” Then: “Huge Prince fan.”

As the installation nears completion, DiPietro crouches by a piece of her steel heart and signs the back of it before it’s raised on a crane and affixed to the concrete.

The pandemic may not be over, she says, but the artwork — lit or unlit — is meant to provide sustenance.

“I wanted to remind everyone that no matter how dark things get, there’s always hope,” she says. “There’s always light, it’s always gonna be there, even when you can’t see it.”

VIDEO | 04:42
LA Times Today: How COVID-19 inspired this neon art installation in L.A.

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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