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
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
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. …