Los Angeles Restoring Its Freeway Murals

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 17, 2003
Avoiding L.A.'s traffic jams may be impossible. But the city's colorful freeway murals can brighten even the most miserable commute.

Murals depicting everything from Olympic athletes and movie stars to minority struggles and political upheaval adorn office buildings and freeway underpasses from Santa Monica to East L.A. With a unique and unrivaled collection of more than 2,000 murals, the city of Los Angeles is the unofficial mural capital of the world.

But the lethal combination of graffiti, pollution and a sometimes scorching sun has left many of the murals in a sorry state. The city, practicing a zero tolerance policy on graffiti, has gone so far as to paint over some of the murals completely.

Now Los Angeles is embarking on a U.S. $1.7 million project to restore the city's murals. The restorations begin this month. So far, 16 walls have been selected, and more may be added in the fall.

Muralists and conservators hope the project will highlight the artistic merits of murals, and convince city planners to stay away from quick fixes and instead support more permanent restorations.

"Murals have been treated like crack babies and kept on life support for too long," said Nathan Zakheim, a leading conservator whose firm will work on many of the murals. "With this restoration project, we're showing how the murals can be restored and sustained in perpetuity."

Learning From the Masters

Until the 1960s, public murals in Los Angeles were rare and isolated displays of commemoration and appreciation.

But in the 60s and 70s, young L.A. artists began to look at the early 20th-century Mexican mural movement. Great artists like David Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and Jose Orozco helped inspire a new generation of muralists such as Kent Twitchell, Judith Baca, and Alonzo Davis.

Soon, the murals became a signature of the city's cultural expression and social change, often reflecting L.A.'s ethnic diversity.

The most famous mural is Baca's "The Great Wall," a 13-foot (4-meter) high mural that runs for half a mile (0.8 kilometer) along the Tujunga canal in North Hollywood. The mural represents the history of ethnic peoples of California. It took eight years to complete—400 underprivileged teenagers executed the designs—and is thought to be the longest mural in the world.

In the early 80s, L.A. mayor Tom Bradley, a mural enthusiast, commissioned 47 murals along the Los Angeles freeways for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Among the murals to be restored now is Kent Twitchell's "Seventh Street Altarpiece," which he painted in 1983 as part of the Olympics series. This striking work, familiar to many L.A. commuters, depicts two local artists facing each other on opposite sides of the 110 Freeway at the 7th Street exit, near downtown Los Angeles.

"It was meant as a kind of gateway through which the traveler to L.A. must drive," said Twitchell. "The open hands represent peace."

The People's Art

Twitchell specializes in larger-than-life photo realist portraits of people, especially celebrities and artists.

"I am a great believer in the hero's place in our culture," said Twitchell. "I've looked up to certain individuals throughout my life. My dad and grandfather, sports figures from the 50s, Superman, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy."

Mural enthusiasts often call murals "the people's art." Whether at a busy freeway intersection or tucked into a local neighborhood, murals can reach people who would never pay U.S. $10 to see fine art in a museum. "Murals give a voice to the silent majority," said Zakheim.

Supporters also contend that murals help forge a strong sense of community and belonging, making it particularly difficult to witness the deterioration of some of the works.

Julia Luke, a 22-year-old native L.A. artist who works with Zakheim, remembers loving "Seventh Street Altarpiece" as a kid. Whenever she returned to L.A. from college in New York, she could see how that and other murals were deteriorating

"It was like I was returning to a different city," she said.

From Production to Conservation

In the past, experts say, little attention was given to what it takes to care for public art. Artists were even expected to maintain their own works, not an easy task with cars flying by at 60 miles (100 kilometers) an hour.

Pollution and the weather have caused paint in many murals to bubble or peel. Colors have faded dramatically. The children in Glenna Avila's "L.A. Freeway Kids," located along the 101 Freeway, near Los Angeles Street, have turned purple, causing them to look like little aliens.

But graffiti has perhaps caused the biggest damage to murals. Tagging—writing a nickname on as many surfaces as possible—is ubiquitous in Los Angeles, as it is in many other U.S. cities.

Since 1993, the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) has had a "zero tolerance" policy toward graffiti, immediately painting walls that have been tagged, even if the graffiti is on top of murals. In some cases, it's now hard to see where the mural starts and where it ends.

There have been mural restoration projects in the past, particularly by the Mural Conservancy Project, initiated in 1989. But the new project is the first time that the City Cultural Affairs Department and CalTrans have worked together on preserving murals in Los Angeles.

Conservators hope the new initiative signals a shift away from mural production toward conservation. If the money is spent now, they say, the city of Los Angeles will save on maintenance for decades to come.

Renovating murals is nothing like restoring a painting, however. Tools and techniques are more akin to heavy construction work: scaffolding, water blasting, and sanding.

But conservators plan to employ new methods, such as advanced resin technology that increases paint durability, which should make restorations more permanent.

Zakheim has developed a sophisticated method for relocating and restoring the murals in his studio in what used to be an old Cadillac factory in Hollywood. This is what he will do with Twitchell's "L.A. Marathon," for example. The mural will then be glued back on the wall, but in a location that is easier to maintain than L.A.'s busy 405 Freeway.

"We're at a crossroads on the viability of outdoor murals," said Zakheim. "If we shift our focus to conserving and restoring existing murals now, further conservation efforts won't be needed for 20, maybe 30 years."

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