Los Angeles grapples with saving its murals
EAST LOS ANGELES
Riding shotgun through a sprawling cityscape of store-front churches, fruit stands, and radiator shops, Armando Herman gestures left and right like an excited tour guide.Skip to next paragraph
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"That's beautiful, it has history and heritage, expresses unity and aspiration," he says, pointing to a mural 15 feet high, replete with images of Aztec figures, animals, and soldiers.
"That's not," he says, pointing to an equal-sized explosion of spray-painted signatures, gang initials, cryptic symbols, and numbers. "That is gangs defining turf, defacing the city."
His comments frame a heated debate that has erupted across the nation's second-largest city that hinges on an age-old question: Who gets to define art?
From London to Beijing legions of young people have transformed the gray expanse of urban environments into a tangle of color with spray paint and derring-do. And city budgets spend billions yearly to paint them out.
In Los Angeles, known worldwide as a leading center of mural art, there exists another painted tradition: scenes filled with historic figures and dozens of carefully crafted mythological creatures by artists whose reputations span the globe.
Their efforts have long been supported by funding from the and nonprofit organizations, and recognized as a way to showcase a cultural history in a city vibrant with Asian, African-American, Latino, and caucasian communities. At the same time, the structure of the mural program has quietly nurtured aspiring youth, and collectively they have produced thousands of urban paintings that have defined the street look of America's most multicultural city.
But after several years of funding cuts and policy shifts, artists once drawn to L.A. are moving elsewhere, to Oregon and Philadelphia. And the murals - some decades old - are threatened by deterioration from age, a growing number of gang markings, and city inspectors who are more rigorously demanding that property owners keep their outer walls mural free.
"I am grieved by the condition of existing murals, no public policy to support them, and a coming generation which has begun to deface what we have because they have no context to understand the heritage behind them or a way to channel their own talent to produce their own," says Judy Baca, a professor of cultural studies and public and ethnic art at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The situation has been exacerbated to the point that Baca, along with others, feel that a renewed effort to mentor freelance street artists will help preserve a cultural legacy while making room for the artistic expression of a new generation.
Mr. Herman, a teacher and lifelong Boyle Heights resident, is pushing the solution of enforcing a little-used city ordinance that allows the city to regulate murals that are adjacent to public property. Prodded by such activism, city inspectors recently began telling some property owners they must remove exterior murals or paint them over.