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.

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