When people think of Los Angeles murals, it's the Chicano barrio of East L.A. that first comes to mind. In that economically poor but culturally dynamic part of town, hundreds of walls are resplendent with visual stories of revolutionary Mexico and gigantic depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, farm-worker leader Cesar Chavez, and ancient Mayan pyramids. Powerful feelings of pride and pain radiate from the walls.
Murals, however, were never just a Latino phenomenon. They reveal a striking contrast of subject matter and attitudes, often reflecting the persistence of American society's sharp class and racial divisions.
Los Angeles is a key metropolis when it comes to murals. "Los Angeles has often been called the mural capital of the world," says Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. "With more murals and other elements of street culture than any other city, murals have become a permanent part of our cultural identity." Before the grass-roots appropriation of neighborhood walls for street art in the late 1960s, murals most frequently portrayed a narrow, elitist interpretation of beauty, history, and the American way of life. Thus, during the 1920s, southern California banks, hotels, theaters, and insurance companies hired successful artists, such as Hugo Ballin and Anthony Heinsbergen, to decorate their marble lobbies and offices with classical scenes and landscapes. And the legacy of the federally sponsored New Deal art projects of the '30s and early '40s is mainly one of idealism - both through scenes of happy European-American suburbanites at leisure and through sanitized versions of early California history. Two notable exceptions are Maynard Dixon's "Palomino Ponies" in the Canoga Park post office and Boris Deutsch's "Cultural Contributions of North, South, and Central America" in Downtown L.A.'s Terminal Annex Post Office. The massive social movements of the 1960s empowered whole new segments of American society - those with little or no representation in the history books, major media, or mainstream art venues. Murals were especially embraced by Chicano and African-American youths. The results in some parts of Los Angeles were neighborhoods transformed into galleries - showcasing cultural traditions, teaching a populist view of history, and exposing critical social problems needing attention. Richard Wyatt grew up in the shadow of the Watts Towers in the aftermath of the Watts riots. "In 1976 I was a junior at UCLA," he remembers. "At that time I was bothered by the fact that there weren't enough works of art in the inner cities. I really wanted to start putting works of art where people lived. That was it for me, the niche - public works of art that are just as finely crafted as any gallery or museum piece. …