From Graffiti to Mural Art, With a Few Detours
The Autry’s current exhibition about Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros lionizes the mural América Tropical, one of three U.S. works he painted during his stay in Los Angeles in 1932. But some believe that’s very far from the treatment mural art gets today in this city. They say the murals for which it has become known are vanishing.
“It’s all being controlled in the back rooms at City Hall,” said Stash Maleski, an L.A. artist who works to open up local spaces for mural and graffiti art. “That’s why the artists have very little power.”
Maleski and four fellow artists who collaborate in his company, I.C.U. Art, put together temporary murals for the Autry’s Public Mural Project during the Fiestas Patrias celebration on Sept. 12 at Whittier Narrows Regional Park.
This Saturday, Maleski takes part in The State of L.A. Murals Today, a panel discussion that also includes Pat Gomez, mural manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles, and Debra Padilla, executive director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), a longtime public art non-profit that seeks to protect mural art.
The fact that murals get no respect in Los Angeles is no secret. Chicano artists based in the city have been decrying the state of the mural art scene they created at panel discussions in the runup to Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied.
“The distinction between murals and signs is simple; it’s the intent,” Judy Baca, muralist and founder of SPARC, told the Argonaut magazine in 2009. “If it’s about beauty or social interaction, it’s a mural. If it’s designed to sell a product, then it’s advertising, pure and simple.”
A recent inventory of 105 of Los Angeles’ 1,500 murals, conducted by SPARC, found that more than 60 percent had disappeared, according to the Associated Press. Much of the blame often goes to graffiti artists who tag or deface the murals.
“Large parts of our city’s legacy are being forgotten or damaged by graffiti, and as we lose these murals, we lose a part of ourselves,” Baca has said.
But artists like Baca, Ernesto de la Loza, and Maleski also blame insensitive city officials and workers who damage or paint over the murals in an effort to deal with the graffiti.
Maleski, who graduated from UCLA’s arts program in 1992 and immediately plunged into the graffiti art scene, has been a key figure in finding legitimate spaces for graffiti artists to paint in. He believes they are the muralists of our time.
“We wanted to take the graffiti art and do it as close to museum quality as we could get, but on a shoestring budget,” he told me. “We were trying to bring that sort of quality and care to graffiti art…. We were trying to bring some permanence to these pieces that on the street might get painted over.”
In 1993, Maleski curated a graffiti art show in a warehouse that got such good response that he formed a company to continue the effort. Then, in 2000, he and his colleagues began managing the Venice Art Walls, a space on Venice Beach that allows graffiti artists to express their vision legally. The former ampitheatre had been an informal haven for the artists, but when the city moved to demolish it, Maleski and friends rallied to make it a legal graffiti canvas.
“It was essentially a big cultural tourist draw,” he said. “It’s a happening, unique place. It’s open every day, so people come to see the artists painting.”
But with success come new issues: how to keep the quick turnover in images from discouraging artists and how to protect the art once it’s made.
“The lesson is that you have to keep maintaining the space,” Maleski said. “Our murals get hit by graffiti artist too, so you have to manage and maintain them.”
A chief concern for Maleski and other artists who seek to promote and protect mural art is the legal no-man’s-land in which the art lies. Under current local rules, murals on private property — say, on the side of a store — are considered signs, so they have to conform to size and content regulations.
And in recent years they have had to compete with supergraphics, outsize commercial billboards that may cover buildings and other large swaths of public and private space that then becomes lucrative for the city, increasingly elbowing out murals that don’t have a commercial message.
“There is no permit that you can get for a fine art mural in Los Angeles,” Maleski said. “The city basically made every mural a sign. And there are very strong restrictions for signs…. It’s a bit of a debate.”
The State of L.A. Murals Today is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9.