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LA Mural Culture: The Good, the Ban and the Ugly
by Kimberly B. Johnson

Los Angeles mural culture is not to be taken lightly; the art and its roots of perseverance run deep. Through political, societal and cultural shifts, murals have acted as the visual documentation of the most pivotal accolades and darkest moments of Los Angeles city history.

In the 1960s and 70s, Chicano pride laid the foundation for mural enthusiasm, producing projects such as The Great Wall of Los Angeles and the famed Ghosts of the Barrio. The community blossomed, creating hundreds of iconic murals over the course of several years. Ultimately, Los Angeles had no other choice but to accept its rightful place as the “mural capital of the world.”

Segment of The great Wall of Los Angeles depicting the baby boomer generation; Image photographed by Urban Bamboo.


However, in recent years, LA’s reputation in the mural game has been soiled. The 1980s proved the city’s prominence as a bustling metropolis, causing commercial advertisers to take notice. Soon creative ads became a regular sight where sporadic community based murals once lived. The visual shift opened the controversial discussion between what is considered ad and what is considered art. In 1986, the first mention of murals hit LA law books. The city worked with community organizations and public art programs to preserve the relaxed attitude relating to murals, all the while rewriting the books to hinder mainstream propaganda from cluttering city walls. In 2002, after a tiresome slew of lawsuits against the city brought on by advertisers, LA opted out of the conversation entirely—hitting the public with an all-out mural moratorium.

The streets were silenced. Art had been subdued. All uncommissioned murals—even permissioned murals on private property—were banned. LA’s crown was stripped and the City of Angels had lost its halo.

Saber's LA River piece before it's white-walling in 2009; Source:

But in 2011— after nearly a decade of mural repression— graffiti artist Saber spearheaded the movement focused on getting the mural ordinance reevaluated. This came only after a number of crushing public art losses including the white-walling of Saber’s 1997 piece along the LA River in 2009. The labored work, measuring in at 50 feet tall and 350 feet wide, goes down in history as the largest graffiti piece in the world to date.

In 2011—one week before MOCA’s hugely successful “Art in the Streets” exhibition— another invaluable piece of art was buffed with regards to the city’s wishy-washy moratorium rules. In 2010, LA’s Known Gallery commissioned seven celebrated graffiti artists to complete a mural on a building located on Fairfax and Rosemead. The group included Saber, Retna, Revok, Rime, Norm and the Brazilian twin duo, Os Gemeos. The following year, a city-contracted buffing company began layering paint over the mural with seemingly no effort in confirming its legality or illegality. After a heads-up from the property owner and a lawsuit threat from the owner of Known, the buffing company resolved the issue by paying for and overseeing the paint’s removal. The mural underwent minimal damage from the removal process, but is still intact and stands tall today.

Australian artists Dabs and Myla's collaboration with German twin duo How and Nosm located at 713 E. 3rd. St.; Image photographed by Doran


Staying in line with the mural counter culture, creative energy doesn’t stand stoic for long. The LA Free Walls Project sprouted into action in 2011 led by LALA Gallery owner and street art ally, Daniel Lahoda. The short version is this; by looking at the caliber of art and artists who contributed to the cause, this was arguably one of the best things to happen to the Los Angeles landscape in years. Ironically enough, what some may rightfully see as a service to the city could have gotten each artist arrested. Although every wall was permissioned by the property owners, all of the murals—under the 2002 moratorium—were technically illegal. Some examples of these astounding—albeit illicit—murals include Dabs and Myla’s collaboration with How and Nosm on “Cream of the Crop,” ROA’s “California Brown Bear,” OBEY’s “Peace Goddess” and JR’s “Wrinkles of the City”.

ROA's California Brown Bear Mural located on the west end of Jesse and Imperial streets; Image photographed by Doran

Fastforward to the summer of 2013 and the moratorium is officially lifted. Headway in rebuilding LA’s reputation as the mural capital is well underway. However—as with any good drama—the denouement has newly transitioned to a point of rising tension.

Just months after the law change, those closely involved with the ordinance lift jumped head first into mural projects that dealt directly with commercial advertisements—a dually noted offence against the new legislation. Risk’s January 2014 mural for Miller Brewing Co’s new Fortune beer stands as the subject’s hottest topic. As a revered graffiti icon—having been the first and presumably last LA artist to have his work run on the legendary New York subway system—Risk has some undeniable street clout. Unfortunately, his “mural” on 3rd and South Main has made him a topic of discussion for less flattering reasons. The controversy, confusion and all round conundrum with Risk’s Miller collaboration was chronicled by RJ Rushmore here.

Fortunately, for those of us who just want to see the long-awaited bright side to this layered story, there is one.

One of French street artist JR's installments in his Wrinkles of the City series located in the LA Arts District; Image photographed by Phantom Gallery LA


New murals—murals with vitality and substance—have sprouted throughout the LA landscape. The first legal mural in nearly a decade was executed this February by Risk and OBEY. The mural, reading “hope” and “justice,” was produced in conjunction with the Skid Row Housing Project as a way to input something that was once taken away from the community. Bigger and better things are to come, LA. Stay up!


—Kimberly Johnson


(Image on top: Shepard Fairey, Peace Goddess located at 3rd St. and Traction Ave.; Image photographed by Tom Kershaw)

Posted by Kimberly B. Johnson on 4/3/14 | tags: Street Critique

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