The Murals of Los Angeles

Mural in Pico Rivera by Richard Davidon
Southside of Venice Ave. just east of Union Blvd.
Photo 1997 by Richard Davidon
Used by Permission

The murals in Los Angeles and Southern California are one of the best examples of the power of public art and an important part of our cultural heritage. Though murals have been present in the area since the early 1900's, the Hispanic community has played the leading role in the mural painting renaissance that came as a result of the civil rights struggles of the 1960's. The murals are an important tool for social and political expression. Today there are over a thousand public murals throughout the area.

The murals can be a good way to gauge the concerns and hopes of a community in that their themes often deal with the important issues in a community. Furthermore, they can serve a variety of functions not easily achieved through traditional methods. They can be as much a purely artistic expression as a call to action. For example, some of the murals born early in this period portrayed the struggles for workers rights, civil rights and socio-economic justice. Murals are used to educate and inspire as well as to foster a sense of identity and pride in their culture and community. These are crucial functions in an increasingly diverse setting like Los Angeles.

The muralists are from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and are by no means only Hispanics. Today we are seeing more ethnic groups creating murals, among them the variety of Asians that have settled in the area. We have also witnessed an evolution in the use and function of murals. Business and government have sponsored murals as advertisements or as part of city beautification and cultural outreach programs, not only in Southern California but in an increasing number of urban areas throughout the United States.

Mural Warrior mural  courtesy of Bell High School. Bell, CA
Eagle Warrior
Bell High School-Bell, CA

Why murals? Some consider public murals to be not far removed from grafitti, unworthy of being called "art." A mural is defined as a picture on a wall or ceiling. Muralism as an art form has been around for a very long time. In fact, the cave art paintings of many cultures throughout the world are considered murals and have remained remarkably well preserved even after thousands of years in some cases. Murals can be found in the great civilizations of Rome and Greece and Egypt among many others. This is hardly a new art form.

Public art in general, and murals in particular, are powerful forms of social communication. Firstly, they are accessible to everyone regardless of education, ethnicity or language. Muralists have the advantage in being able to reach out to a wider audience and are not limited to art galleries. Murals are painted in public places like the sides of buildings, walls, along freeways and many other places. It is art with a direct and tangible message to the common people in the neighborhood. The murals range from gigantic creations like the "Great Wall of Los Angeles" that take years to complete to smaller creations painted by one or two artists. We are also seeing students painting murals in their schools.

Mural at Calle La Eternidad by Johanna Porthig
Calle La Eternidad
Artist: Johanna Porthig
Courtesy University of Southern California

The most powerful influences on modern muralism in California were the three great Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco. In 1922 they were commissioned to paint murals on public buildings that could be easily understood by the "common man" and would glorify precolonial Mexico as well as the 1917 Revolution, themes that were later incorporated into many murals here. All three spent time in the U.S. though none of them was on hand to witness the muralist renaissance in the Chicano communities of California during the 1960's. Rivera and Siquieros' work was more political, deeply influenced by their leftist sympathies, while Orozco tended to focus on less controversial themes. Two common themes appear in the murals of Los Angeles and San Fransisco's Mission District. One continues the Mexican tradition of glorifying the indigenous cultures of the Americas, past and present. This shows the continuity of history, the presence and contribution of a people to society through time.The other is an emphasis on a multicultural society, both in its value as in its shortcomings. It is important to note that the societies of Latin America have deep influences of many cultures.

The Virgin of Guadalupe
The Virgin of Guadalupe
photo 1997 by Richard Davidon
Used by Permission

The murals of Los Angeles over the years have evolved to adapt to changing realities. There has been a softening of some of the revolutionary and nationalist aspects inherited from Rivera and his colleagues. The dominant event in their lives was the Mexican Revolution of 1917. The new generation of muralist remains concerned with the wider issues of civil rights and social justice. However, their points of reference and the dominant influences on their lives are quite different. There has been a greater emphasis on the issues of the neighborhood. Some of these themes are about life and death, youth, education, economic opportunity, the relationship with the police, gangs, and many others. A common theme remains cultural identity and tradition. An important influence in Hispanic culture is religion and the murals often contain religious themes, the Virgin of Guadalupe, for example, is often present in a lot of murals. It should also be pointed out that though many murals deal with political issues and some negative themes, just as many celebrate the more positive aspects. Like life, it is a reflection of good and bad, not just one or the other.

Mural at Drake Community Park by Richard Mendoza
"Village Pride with Sights High"
Drake Community Park by Richard Mendoza
Street Voices of Long Beach

Los Angeles has become much more diverse over the years, with the resulting pressures for assimilation. Government has taken on the task of funding mural projects for a number of reasons. One obvious reason is city beautification. There is obvious value in having colorful works of art. There is a sense of life and movement about them. But more importantly, people feel that they have a direct stake in the murals, they talk about their lives, their culture, and often involve artists that are from the neighborhood. Many publicly sponsored mural projects celebrate multicultural society and the importance of living and working together peacefully. They can lead to an appreciation of our differences and similarities and a respect for these. One of the best examples of this is the "Great Wall of Los Angeles," which celebrates the history of the city and the contributions that different communities have made. Many urban centers throughout the United States have also begun mural projects after appreciating the value of public murals.

Blessing of the animals at the old plaza.
Blessing of the animals in the old plaza
Courtesy University of Southern California

Primary Source: Street Gallery-a Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals
(RJD Enterprises, Los Angeles, 1993) by Robin J. Donitz

A short history of the Chicano Murals
Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles
Murals in downtown LA
Voices from the Hood

Last Updated April 18, 2001

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