Off The Wall

The sad, slow death of LA’s freeway murals

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It’s a crisp Sunday morning and traffic flows steadily through the concrete slot that is the 101 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. The sunlight and the shadows offer a glimpse of bipolar L.A.; the sharp glint of promise and the despair that comes from malignant neglect.

As the freeway runs alongside the old Hall of Justice building, another landmark long-shuttered and left to rot by the city, the gulag gray of the freeway’s cement suddenly erupts into a stunning portal that captures Greco-Roman columns suspended as intergalactic flotsam drifting past a massive Jupiter.

Well, at least that’s what drivers were supposed to see.

What remains today of muralist John Wehrle’s Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo are only the sections that graffiti vandals have been unable to reach with either spray can or by literally splashing paint across it. The entire bottom length of the 207-foot long mural has been completely defaced by tagging, and much of the upper portions the work have also been marred.

But Wehrle’s mural is something of an anomaly, in that it is one of the gravely wounded but surviving freeway murals that dates back to Mayor Tom Bradley’s smart effort to dress the city up for its 1984 Olympic global bash.

Other large scale works that Bradley commissioned to treat the world—and his city—to the magnificence of L.A.’s muralist movement have simply vanished under the gruel-like hues of a CalTrans paint-over, eliminating whatever remained of the vandal-destroyed artwork. The costs of fighting this locust of vandalism is staggering, with CalTrans spending $5 million in freeway graffiti clean-up in 2006 for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, while Los Angeles County had to fork over another $30 million for graffiti abatement that same year—and the problem is only getting worse.

“It’s hurtful, it’s insulting, it’s all of those things,” said legendary Los Angels muralist Frank Romero, whose Going To The Olympics was painted over by CalTrans after being relentlessly defaced by taggers. Romero, who oversaw an intensive restoration of his mural in 2005, is now in litigation over its removal. “To tell you the truth, I’ve given up on outdoor public art,” Romero said.

Glenna Boltuch Avila’s effervescent L.A. Freeway Kids, which depicted a gaggle of multiethnic children in celebratory play, has also been completely destroyed.

Wehrle said restoration of the murals was a noble but ill-conceived effort that was doomed to failure because it didn’t include a serious plant to protect and maintain the murals once they were restored. “I equate it to the war in Iraq, in that they went ahead with the restoration [in 2005] without really thinking it through as to what was going to happen once they completed their objective,” Wehrle said. “They restored the murals and then left.”

More ominous, Wehrle said, is that graffiti vandals now intentionally target public art. “As soon as they figured out that maintenance crews were more reluctant to paint over graffiti on murals, it was open season on murals,” he said.

Pat Gomez, who manages the mural program for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said that vandals targeting the murals caught the city by surprise and quickly overwhelmed it. “It is an extremely troubling situation and we are working hard to understand the surrounding complexities,” Gomez said. “The idea of murals being targets for vandals was never conceived of, and by the time it was recognized the situation was widespread and beyond the reach of one entity to address.”

Just what will be done to recreate the fallen murals and preserve those that remain is uncertain, though Gomez said it will have to be a broad-based approach if it is to succeed.

“Education is a key component,” Gomez said. “It is important for people to realize that the dedication of a new mural is not the end of the project, it is the beginning of a long-term commitment to maintenance.”

From Romero’s perspective, a good start would be getting serious about enforcing the restriction of spraypaint sales to minors, planning a design-based defense into murals and building a civic culture that stigmatizes the wanton destruction of public art.

“We actually are serious about discouraging smokers, in shaming them,” Romero said. “Maybe someday, collectively as a society, we will discourage the destruction of public art. But I feel it’s a long way off.”

Wehrle, who now resides in San Francisco, takes a more Zen approach to his sorrow over seeing his work die a death of a thousand cuts.

“I look at creating a mural as a bit like a performance. There is a certain magic that people get to enjoy as they watch the process unfold. And when the mural is done, the performance is over,” Wehrle said. “It’s a shame that the legacy of these performances eventually are lost and, you know, I don’t mind going back and doing the same performance once in awhile; but I can’t keep doing it over and over again.”

This article was first published in Artillery and the LA Weekly.