Archive for Sunday, September 5, 2010

L.A.’s legacy of murals being lost to graffiti

September 5, 2010

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— Every so often, Ernesto de la Loza drives around the city to check on the state of his murals. It’s a short tour these days. Out of 42 swirling, vivid pieces he’s painted, only seven remain, the rest lost to graffiti, whitewash and withering sun.

“It’s really painful,” said the 61-year-old artist whose works depict Angeleno life from Mexican heritage to the dangers of drugs. “People say ‘don’t take it personal,’ but it’s totally personal. They’re my babies.”

At one time hosting an estimated 1,500 pieces of wall art, Los Angeles is the nation’s mural capital, but that’s a fading distinction thanks to prolific graffiti taggers, a legal morass over classifying the artworks as illegal signs, and neglect.

“I never thought 30 years ago that I would have to save works from being destroyed,” said muralist Judith Baca, an art professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and founder-artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which promotes and protects murals. “We’ve had to defend one piece after another.”

Spawned in the ’70s on the city’s eastside, LA’s murals form a kaleidoscope of color and imagery in a city known for bland urban sprawl. Decorating unlikely swaths of concrete ranging from housing projects to freeway underpasses, some are so massive they are best viewed blocks away, while others are easily digested in a drive-by glance.

They pay homage to celebrities — Anthony Quinn as “Zorba the Greek” towers over a downtown parking lot, Steve McQueen stares out from the side of a house. Some celebrate civic milestones such as the 1984 Olympics or institutions like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The mother of all, Baca’s “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” is a half-mile stretch of California history along a San Fernando Valley drainage canal.

The exact number of lost murals is hard to determine. Baca’s group inventoried a sample of 105 city-sponsored works, and found 60 percent had vanished. Baca said they’re disappearing with increasing frequency since the mural program, which included maintenance, died. The city plans to do its own survey, Gomez said.

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