LOS ANGELES — `THE murals are ultimately an affirmation and celebration of L.A.'s unique diversity in a way all can enjoy,'' says Judy Baca, artistic director of the Social and Public Arts Resource Center. She's speaking of a new crop of dazzlingly colored outdoor wall paintings - in various stages of completion - in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, from Watts to Santa Monica, Koreatown to downtown.
At the corner of Pico Boulevard and Highland Avenue here, 16-year-old Lenear Guest daubs crimson paint from a hand-held palette on the wall of a maintenance warehouse. Three faces - one Asian, one black, and one Latino - take form before a steady stream of traffic and pedestrians. Roderick Sykes, a local mural artist, stands on a scaffold above, stroking the final painterly touches on one of the faces.
Across town, on the side of the Watts Tower Art Center, three teen-agers, Blanca Gonzalez, Areli Velazquez, and Ishmael Lewis, use various colors to make a pictorial image of Cecil Ferguson, a leader of black artists since the '60s. Another mural artist, Richard Wyatt, mixes paints and directs the action.
At the Aliso/Pico Project in the heart of downtown, a third mural - this one depicting the theme of survival - stands unattended, the work abandoned with dusk's dwindling light.
Nine murals are scheduled to be completed this year and nine more next year. Each is intended as more than mere beautification or even artistic expression. In a program begun by Mayor Tom Bradley's office last October, the murals are designed to reflect the city's multi-ethnic diversity while fostering community pride though the involvement of aspiring local artists.
``Art grounds people, especially inner-city youth prone to be in gangs,'' says Benjamin Caldwell, the community liaison who is directing the mayor's program, known as Neighborhood Pride: Great Walls Unlimited. ``It gives them an out from the idle boredom that leads to drugs and crime. They tend to be good to get along with, because they are creating and finishing something they can call their own. And their chests stick out when they feel they are part of something important.''
The ``something important'' in this community is the strong tradition of mural art, beginning as far back as the Aztecs and Incas in nearby Mexico and more recently practiced by famed Mexican painters Jos'e Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). An extensive mural life existed during the depression era's WPA projects, when Mexican artists established this medium nationwide as a formal art form for the first time. In more recent years, various waves of interest - the 1970s graffiti art movement, the 1984 Arts Olympics, and a citywide mural project - have resulted in more than 1,000 murals here.
``Los Angeles has become the mural capital of the world,'' says Howard Fox, curator of the Los Angeles County Museum, ``and the tradition is growing.''
Ms. Baca, whose local organization produces, preserves, and archives murals, says the other cities where murals are highly visible are San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. But she adds that Los Angeles beats them all in both number and diversity.
The reasons are numerous: a year-round painting season here; endless miles of concrete walls; a large Hispanic population with a long tradition in mural painting and little access to a gallery or exhibition system; a 1960s-nurtured tradition for ethnic artists to work in a community setting. ``There is also a huge graffiti problem, multiplied by interracial tensions and claiming of turf, but also young people genuinely trying to express themselves visually,'' says Baca.
The Neighborhood Pride program is designed to make something positive of all this. It is modeled after a successful 10-year mural endeavor in the San Fernando Valley, which used juveniles under arrest to construct a 1,000-foot history of Los Angeles along the walls of the Tujunga Wash, a water-overflow system. Ethnic historians helped ensure an accurate depiction of key historical points from the 1920s to the 1950s. Plans continue to portray the '60s through the '80s.
Using the historic/ethnic aspects of this previous program as its model, the new program's theme is unity amid diversity, with artists chosen to represent blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and whites. About $25,000 is designated for each mural - $7,000 for the artist in charge, a minimum hourly wage for the students of $4.25 involved, and the rest for paint and equipment. A $250,000 total comes from the council districts in which the murals will appear.
``The money is minimum,'' says Mr. Sykes, who has painted about 10 major murals in Los Angles in the past decade, and earns a steady income from his paintings on canvas. ``Creative outlet and love of community is what this all about.''
His site will take about three months to complete, about two months longer than usual because he is supervising his student aides, each of whom puts in about 15 hours a week after school and on Saturdays.
``I'm learning how to use a brush instead of spray paint,'' says Lenear Guest, who was chosen from a number of applicants from nearby Los Angeles High School. ``And it's great to be paid for what I like to do,'' he says, adding that working with an established artist is boosting his own aspirations to become an artist.
Mr. Guest, a former graffiti artist who had two friends killed by gang violence while they were painting, says he has learned how to design, measure, blueprint, enlarge, and paint step by step.
``This project helps stop graffiti and keeps people out of gangs,'' says Janice Thibodeaux, a student at the Richard Wyatt site. She says she has learned how to steady a brush, create depth of field, and mix colors in the same number of hours she used to spend watching TV.
``Art is an integral part of what we are, not just added on,'' says Sykes, who has lived in the area since 1964. ``It feeds your mind while it brings beauty, spirituality, business, and people into the area.
Baca says, ``No one can deny that we are the new Ellis Island, with a constantly burgeoning pressure of new immigrants. What these murals are about is each artist's individual expression to reflect the new diversity.''