The history of muralism in Los Angeles has its roots in the Mexican Renaissance of the 1920s. During that period, Mexican muralists José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros came to paint in the US. In 1930, Orozco painted Prometheus at Pomona College, on the very edge of Los Angeles county; and, just two years later, Siqueiros completed América Tropical above Olvera Street in the oldest part of downtown Los Angeles. It was both the medium and the message-laden tradition of Mexican muralism that inspired the Chicano art movement in the 1960s.
The Great Wall, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, was conceived by Judy Baca in 1974 as part of a neighbourhood beautification project. Over the years it took to complete, and later to restore, Baca worked with dozens of artists and more than 400 youth and community members to create a ‘pictorial representation of the history of ethnic peoples of California from prehistoric times to the 1950s’. It is a cultural landmark, a widely cited example of Chicana/o art, a feminist and queer work, and many visitors are surprised to discover that, despite its notoriety, the mural is easy to miss because it is painted just below ground level inside a cement flood channel in the Valley. The Great Wall spans an impressive 839.4 metres but can only be viewed through a chain-link fence that runs along the channel. Part community art project, part urban planning, it emerged at a time when few brown artists could exhibit their work anywhere in Los Angeles. Today, when most people think of LA murals, they think of those along the 101 motorway in downtown Los Angeles, The Great Wall, giant celebrity portraits of Anthony Quinn and Jim Morrison, the occasional whale – and their distaste for having to drive through hours of traffic to see them.
The Great Wall is narrative and begins with a woolly mammoth and several other ill-fated mammals (who are apparently destined to be excavated from the city’s La Brea Tar Pits) before moving to California’s often equally tragic human history. One of the most poignant sections for me depicts an LA street scene from ground level. In it, the viewer must peer through the wide stance of an LAPD officer’s knee-high, black patent-leather boots to see a young Latino man beaten and shirtless on the ground. A discarded newspaper headline reads: ‘Zoot Suiters learn lesson.’ The Zoot Suit Riots took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 1943, when thousands of white servicemen and civilians attacked and often stripped Mexican-American youths, and other persons of colour, of their zoot suits. Similar, if smaller, occurrences of anti-Mexican violence appeared across the nation. But today, in a year when anti-Mexican rhetoric has fuelled red-faced crowds to jeer and chant racist comments against immigrants from many nations, I have to stop and ask myself: what lessons did we really learn?
Few would debate that Los Angeles is a city of images. Enormous billboards and moving graphics line the Sunset Strip and mark the hillsides. In Venice, I photographed metallic paint dripping from palm trees that had been tagged so many times it was impossible to decipher. There are local and international mural artists who live double lives; commissioned by cafes, corporations and schools by day, they often make unsigned ‘street art’ under cover of night. Murals in Los Angeles’s booming downtown Arts District are seen by some as part of gentrification and blamed for displacing lower-income and working-class communities, while murals reflecting civic and cultural themes in culturally or economically homogenous neighbourhoods are often embraced as empowering to those communities.
In Los Angeles there are murals that directly reference Mexican modernism, Rivera and Frida Kahlo; these and other painted signs and advertisements also sometimes capture the optimism frequently associated with emergent economies. Graffiti and tagging, once reviled by serious muralists, are now often incorporated in works that have multiple contributors. And, like The Great Wall, there are murals that employ a more traditional approach to reflect, educate or teach the communities in which they are found. Still others express rage and political frustration. However, some of the lessons learned are not so obvious.
Located in an underpass on Sunset Boulevard, Ruben Soto’s mural Eyes (1991, restored 1997) depicts the partial portraits or eyes of Kent Twitchell – one of LA’s most iconic muralists – a pastor and the artist himself. A photograph I took of it, from street level, captures a detail of one of the eyes. It depicts – on the sidewalk in front of the mural – a sleeping bag, two bottles of water, some cardboard, a slightly stained brown paper bag and a fast-food cup with a straw that clearly belonged to a homeless person who had taken up residence in front of this ever-watching brown eye. This image points to the symbolic violence of photography and the uneasy relationship between beautification and gentrification, representation and objectification as well as what is, perhaps, the greatest lesson of modernism: that while art may help us see both privilege and oppression, it can rarely change it.
Main image: Ken Gonzales-Day, Zoot Suit Riots, 2016, photograph of a detail from The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural by Judy Baca and assistants (1974–83), Valley Glen, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist