Painted house facades and city walls characterize the cityscape of Los Angeles. There is a long tradition behind it, which already found its way into the cityscape of L.A. in the 1930s and ranges from so-called muralism to modern street art. The Mexican painter David Siqueiros was one of the first to bring this early form of street art from Mexico to the West of the USA with his work América Tropical (1932). In the following decades, L.A. made a name for itself as the “Mural Capital of the World”, which it still lives up to today.
In his text Why do Graffiti Writers Write on Murals? The Birth, Life, and Slow Death of Freeway Murals in Los Angeles (2016), author Stefano Block examines the emergence of muralism in Los Angeles and the development of this street art from a form of artistic protest, especially by the Chicanos/as against car-savvy urban politics, to a legitimate art form. A turning point in the history of the Murals, according to Bloch, was the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival: “By 1984 the 10 Olympic Arts Festival murals would emulate and, in a sanitized form, legitimize a vernacular form of expression and radical use of space conceived of by graffiti writers and members of the critical Chicano/a mural movement.” The six street art murals and their artists below will examine the development of muralism in Los Angeles before, during, and after 1984.
América Tropical (1932) by David Alfaro Siqueiros: Pioneering Street Art
David Siqueiros’ mural América Tropical from 1932 not only represents the arrival of muralism as a form of street art in Los Angeles, but also symbolizes the way the city of Los Angeles deals with this form of artistic protest. América Tropical was originally commissioned by the city of Los Angeles for the Plaza Art Center. The request was for “a festive work for the Mexican-themed tourist district, an exotic but playful piece that inspired and soothed”. This is how author Sarah Schrank describes it in her text The Art of the City: Modernism, Censorship, and the Emergence of Los Angeles’s Postwar Art Scene (2016). Instead, Siqueiros has created a mural painting “with images of severe native Stuart and an angry eagle,” which stands as a symbol for the Anglo-American occupation of Mexico. Due to its critical potential, the 80 x 18 ft mural soon fell victim to so-called whitewashing. It was only in the 2000s that the Getty Research Institute restored and conserved the mural and since 2012 it has been made visible to visitors again in an exhibition.
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David Alfaro Siqueiros was a Mexican painter of social realism who became famous for his murals in fresco and who made muralismo great in Mexico together with David Riviera and José Clemente Orozco. Siqueiros is still considered one of the country’s most radical artists today – formally, painterly, and ideologically.
Siqueiros: La Voz De La Gente! (2012): A Tribute Mural
Just how important David Siqueiros’ influence was for the development of muralism as street art in Los Angeles can also be seen in this mural: In 2012, various artists paid tribute to the Mexican painter by dedicating a mural painting to him entitled Siqueiros: La Voz de la Gente! The work was created in the context of the Latino Heritage Month. The work was initiated by Anna Siqueiros, a great-niece of the famous painter, and was carried out as a collaborative work by various artists such as Ernesto de la Loza, Willie Herrón III, Carlos Callejo, Carlos Duran, Juan Carlos Muñoz, Fabian Debora, Raul Gonzalez, Nuke, Defer, Blossom and more.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1976-83) by Judith Baca: Californian History
The Great Wall of Los Angeles (1976-83) is a mural designed by the artist Judith Baca and subsequently executed over many years by over 400 different volunteers and artists. The original title of this street art is The History of California. This mural is in many ways a very special piece of street art. The Great Wall of Los Angeles was a public project coordinated by the Social and Public Recourse Center (SPARC). Until today the mural with a length of half a mile counts as one of the longest murals in the world.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles tells the history of California through the eyes of women and minorities. Judith Baca’s Chicano background also plays a major role in the motifs. Chronologically, The mural tells the history of California, starting with the dinosaurs. Most of it tells about the influence, oppression and liberation of minorities in the city history of L.A. until the 1950s. Judith Baca is a Chicano artist, activist and co-founder of SPARC. The Great Wall of Los Angeles is the most famous project of the artist. The mural has been damaged over the decades, has been restored and is even planned to be continued in its history.
Ignorance And Poverty (1970-76) by Elliot Pinkney: Murals Of Protest
The murals of the artist Eliot Pinkneys depict a piece of African-American protest and history in the form of street art. The work Ignorance and Poverty (1970-76) has become an iconic L.A. mural. Author Michael Fallon interprets the wall painting with a two-headed snake and a central heroic figure, symbolically holding an eyeball in his hand, as follows: “Perhaps created as a way of coping with the realities of his changing community, Pinkney’s painting was heavily didactic, but the artist compensated for this didacticism by employing the vibrant color, boldly emblematic shapes, and the dynamically flowing, twisting composition that local Chicano muralists had developed a few years earlier.” (see Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s)
Originally coming from the Chicano culture and art, muralism has over the decades become a pictorial means of expression in public space for other minorities in Los Angeles as well. Elliot Pinkney’s murals are among the most famous mural works by African-Americans.
Seventh Street Altarpiece (1983-84) by Kent Twitchell: Freeway Murals
According to author Stefano Block, the construction of massive freeways in Los Angeles has always been demonized by some and praised by others as admirable design work or even as the cathedral of its time and place. In the spirit of the latter admiration, the mural artist Kent Twitchel created his Seventh Street Altarpiece commissioned by LAOOC and the Olympic Arts Festival in 1983 and 84, appearing in two 18 × 97ft sections on opposite sides of the 110 Freeway in downtown.
Bloch describes these murals as follows: “One side of the diptych depicts artist Lila Albuquerque, hands open to either side of her face with palms facing outward. The other side portrays artist Jim Morphesis, in the same pose, same disinterested stare, same larger-than-life photorealistic headshot. As the most prolific muralist in L.A., both in terms of the size of his murals and the number produced, Twitchell also experienced the most praise for and existential challenges to his work.”
Painting famous people and stars in a realistic way– not photo-realistic ways as the artist claims – has become the trademark of Kent Twitchell over the decades. His mural Seventh Street Altarpiece was destroyed over the years and brought to US 101. There the work fell victim to various graffiti tags. Today the tagged mural is a symbol for an idealistic fight and quarrel in the understanding of street art. The destruction of his two mural artworks let Kent Twitchell judge later: “The mural capital of the world has become the graffiti capital.” (Twitchell, personal interview, 2013)
Going Nowhere Fast (2012) by D*Face: Comic Street Art
While Kent Twitchell is known for his photorealistic murals, the murals of street art artist D*Face are all about comic style and Pop Art. D*Face belongs to a new generation of muralists whose murals can be seen all over the world. Some of them shape the cityscape of Los Angeles. The murals of D*Face in L.A. often have a cinematic, dramatic character fitting to Hollywood, as the mural Going Nowhere Fast (2012) shows. Another mural entitled Rear View (2014) deals with the image of Los Angeles as a car city. Unlike his predecessors, the British artist D*Face alias Dean Stockton does not work with a fresco technique but with various materials such as spray tint or stickers. D*Face is one of the few street-art artists who had many solo exhibitions and the artist was also the owner and curator of Outside Institute in London, the first contemporary art gallery that has been focused on street art.
This small selection of murals and artists in Los Angeles is only a very small part of the extensive range of this form of street art. However, this small ride through the history of muralism shows that the art form has undergone development, it has changed in many ways and still reveals its origins. Thus, muralism is still today a frequent form of expression for social criticism and political protest. At the same time, muralists such as Kent Twitchell have made the murals more popular and thus changed their meaning towards mainstream street art. Recently, graffiti artists have been influencing the reception and visibility of the murals for several years.