L.A. Muralists Paint the Town Wall-to-Wall With Ethnic Pride

Here’s an oldie but a goodie. From a 1997 article in the Christian Science Monitor entitled “L.A. Muralists Paint the Town Wall-to-Wall With Ethnic Pride”:

LOS ANGELES — 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…

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.”

And, oh, have things changed in terms of defining ‘community art’:

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.

That God we had the Edenic cultural revolution of the 1960s! How many PC buzzwords can you spot in this article?

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…

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.”

The following two paragraphs say more about Chicano cultural deviation from Anglo culture than a handful of dissertations:

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.’ “

In reading this piece from ’97, it’s amazing how saccharine and overly romantic news stories like this were and still very much are:

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.

Si! Se puede!

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