In the 1980s, LA was considered the mural capital of the world. But in 2002, public murals were banned after unsightly graffiti tags and dishonest marketing started to dominate the urban landscape. The city lost its title and the ban stifled artists for over ten years until, in 2013, the city lifted the ban and street art experienced a resurgence.
The ordinance outlined the bureaucratic channels artists must go through to paint murals legally, such as paying an application fee and submitting preliminary sketches to community leaders for approval. Some artists choose to follow these guidelines while others do not. According to veteran LA muralist Kent Twitchell, since the passing of the new ordinance, the mural community has been thriving in LA once more.
“It’s sort of like when the Soviet Union fell, and it’s kind of the beginnings of floundering around and trying to see what freedom is like again,” Twitchell said.
In the past two years, three prominent mural sites have emerged downtown. The artists represented at these sites are indicative of the diverse nature of this city and its people, who have turned a concrete jungle into a vibrant canvas.
On Wilshire Boulevard, off of Fairfax across from LACMA, stands the first site: a segment of the Berlin Wall covered in murals. Twitchell unveiled a portrait of Nelson Mandela on this wall segment last summer. This new piece stands next to two others—portraits of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy—painted by Twitchell in 2009. Sandwiched between these world leaders is a snarling, neon green bear with slime dripping from its gnarly teeth. The wall presents viewers with an array of styles, from graffiti tags to comic book characters and surreal, geometric figures.
Twitchell set a precedent for this new generation of muralists with his appreciation for cultural and artistic diversity.
“Let’s live plurality, not just talk about it,” Twitchell said.
Plurality defines the Container Yard, a space on the Downtown Artwalk of East Fourth Street and the second prominent mural site. The Container Yard is like an outdoor gallery space for muralists, and the volume of work has exploded in recent months. Around every corner there is something new to see, as artists with styles that range from realistic to cartoon-like are given free reign to express themselves. What was once a mochi factory has been turned into an exhibition space for the city’s top muralists by its curator, Ash Chan.
“We acquired the property about a year ago, and we kinda had plans for the exterior but it just expanded organically from the inside out. Some really cool artists came by and we had some good walls,” Chan said.
Muralist Angelina Christina has two works at the Container Yard and is known for creating striking portraits of women, which exhibit realism but are made even more dramatic through her expert use of shadow.
“I’d always find myself drawing other kids in class, or sketching my hands over and over,” Christina said.
Christina’s figures are complimented by fellow artists Mar and Ease One, who contributed geometric patterns along the sides of the piece.
Street art extends beyond visual images, as indicated by the work of Sek Lewis, a street poet who spray paints short poems on walls around the city. He has painted on two of Christina’s works at the Container Yard.
On Christina’s massive portrait in front of the Yard, Sek wrote, “Her eyes like emotion sensors,” inviting further contemplation of the piece.
According to Christina, she paints on average two murals a week, many of them with artists Ease One or Fin Dac. She collaborated with Dac on a pair of tall female figures painted in white, blue and pink within walking distance from another mural hotspot called Indian Alley, located on Winston Street in a historically rough part of downtown.
Stephen Zeigler curates the mural installations in the alley, which was once a safe place where homeless Native Americans suffering from drug and alcohol addiction could seek refuge. According to Zeigler, the restless spirit of the alley has inspired much of the artwork on display.
“I’ve found articles from the late 1800s about killings that happened here,” Zeigler said.
Despite the alley’s notorious history, the murals adorning its walls have given it new life.
“One day a hawk appeared on our doorstep, then he flew into the alley,” Zeigler said. “I came back here and I found him hiding behind a dumpster and he was injured so I called animal control and they nursed him back to health.”
According to Zeigler, that hawk became the alley’s spirit animal. Muralist Andrea LaHue also known as Random Act, painted the hawk and surrounded it with bright red flowers, symbolizing the beautification and healing of the alley.
World renowned muralist Shepard Fairey also collaborated on a piece in the alley with street artist Wild Life and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey. Fairey is best known for his signature “Obey” murals, which stylize the intimidating visage of pro wrestling legend Andre the Giant. This smaller piece was commissioned by Honor the Treaties, an organization dedicated to advocating for Native American communities through artistic collaboration.
Some artists are less than happy about the fees required by the new ordinance, according to Christina. Others are complying. Either way, artwork is popping up around the city at an incredible pace, carrying on the legacy of this art form. Isabel Rojas Williams from the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles believes that the new breed of muralists will continue to bring life to the walls of this city, and she supports their efforts to beautify the city after their means to express themselves was stifled for years.
“We want our muralists to leave a legacy, we want to be proud of what they are doing, representing people who make a change in our world,” Rojas-Williams said. “They deserve a break, and the city must support them now, because they could not paint for so long.”
What is the mural shown called?