When people think of Los Angeles murals, it's the Chicano barrio of East L.A. that first comes to mind. In that economically poor but culturally dynamic part of town, hundreds of walls are resplendent with visual stories of revolutionary Mexico and gigantic depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, farm-worker leader Cesar Chavez, and ancient Mayan pyramids. Powerful feelings of pride and pain radiate from the walls.
Murals, however, were never just a Latino phenomenon. They reveal a striking contrast of subject matter and attitudes, often reflecting the persistence of American society's sharp class and racial divisions.
Los Angeles is a key metropolis when it comes to murals. "Los Angeles has often been called the mural capital of the world," says Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. "With more murals and other elements of street culture than any other city, murals have become a permanent part of our cultural identity."
Before the grass-roots appropriation of neighborhood walls for street art in the late 1960s, murals most frequently portrayed a narrow, elitist interpretation of beauty, history, and the American way of life.
Thus, during the 1920s, southern California banks, hotels, theaters, and insurance companies hired successful artists, such as Hugo Ballin and Anthony Heinsbergen, to decorate their marble lobbies and offices with classical scenes and landscapes.
And the legacy of the federally sponsored New Deal art projects of the '30s and early '40s is mainly one of idealism - both through scenes of happy European-American suburbanites at leisure and through sanitized versions of early California history.
Two notable exceptions are Maynard Dixon's "Palomino Ponies" in the Canoga Park post office and Boris Deutsch's "Cultural Contributions of North, South, and Central America" in Downtown L.A.'s Terminal Annex Post Office.
The massive social movements of the 1960s empowered whole new segments of American society - those with little or no representation in the history books, major media, or mainstream art venues.
Murals were especially embraced by Chicano and African-American youths. The results in some parts of Los Angeles were neighborhoods transformed into galleries - showcasing cultural traditions, teaching a populist view of history, and exposing critical social problems needing attention.
Richard Wyatt grew up in the shadow of the Watts Towers in the aftermath of the Watts riots.
"In 1976 I was a junior at UCLA," he remembers. "At that time I was bothered by the fact that there weren't enough works of art in the inner cities. I really wanted to start putting works of art where people lived. That was it for me, the niche - public works of art that are just as finely crafted as any gallery or museum piece."
Today a public-art renaissance of sorts is in progress. Corporations, local government, and community organizations all are sponsoring murals, although with widely different budgets. More artists of color are achieving recognition and important commissions.
For example, El Segundo, a small city in Los Angeles County, has just completed its fifth mural in about 14 months. "We have been looking for ways to revitalize our downtown economy," says Nancy Cobb, a member of the El Segundo Chamber of Commerce Mural Committee. "The murals reflect our community's history and heritage and are proving to be a key component of reestablishing community pride."
Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai artists are also beginning to participate more in the local mural movement, adding an exciting new dimension. Graffiti art is no longer just a Melrose Avenue phenomenon, now gaining wider respect and showing up (with permission) on the walls of businesses elsewhere in L.A.
John "Zender" Estrada is an artist who uses both spray can and brush. He has done more than 100 murals throughout the city, involving local youths as apprentices. In 1994 he painted a mural on a small market in East L.A.
"There was a guy who came up to us from the local gang. Everyone feared him, but he was excited about there being a mural in his neighborhood. I thought it was so cool that I did a representation of him - he's the one doing his homework. The two figures in the middle are giving flowers to you, saying, 'This is what our culture offers to the community - the education, the history of it.' "
Los Angeles is rife with neighborhoods in decay; with too many kids who have been abandoned by government, school, and family; with rampant crime and fear. Of course, murals are no panacea for these kinds of problems. But community murals (as opposed to most corporate commissions) are an empowering force.
They provide a vehicle for venting anger and frustration, and for expressing love and hope. They build self-esteem by teaching skills and generating respect from others. They facilitate communication between peoples and cultures.
"Muralists who grew up on the same streets get through to these young people as few other adults can," says Susan Henry, professor of media and society at California State University, Northridge. "In the process of painting a mural, youth apprentices learn marketable skills, as well as a sense of responsibility and discipline. Mentoring makes all the difference."
"It's up to the artist to create reflections of everyone who's out there," says self-taught muralist Roderick Sykes. "Kids need to see themselves. I have the potential and possibility of inspiring another person to be a little more positive and creative, to be more involved and take responsibility for his own life."