A young artist participating in an aerosol workshop at Self Help Graphics & Art. / Credit: Ángel Lizárraga
"El Corrido de Boyle Heights mural, one of the many murals that draw tourists to the community. / Credit: Ángel Lizárraga

The streets of Boyle Heights are like an art gallery, with walls that act as canvases. Images of brown pride and indigenous symbols tell stories from the past, and the now faded colors of decades-old murals still brighten the community.

Yet many people today walk by these murals without knowing their significance. Many of these works of art are neglected. Some suffer from constant vandalism and whitewashing, and their rich history is disappearing.

Murals became popular during the Chicano Movement of the 1970’s, when artists began telling their unique stories on walls throughout the Eastside. Chicanos at this time lacked representation in public life, with neither a strong voice in elections, nor elected representatives. Murals became a way to communicate community concerns about police brutality, immigration, drugs, gang violence and other difficulties of a life of poverty.
“Artists from the 70s were really influenced by this idea of progressive social movements,” said Evonne Gallardo, director of Self Help Graphics and Art, a community art center that is famous for nurturing Latino artists in printmaking.

Wayne Healy, 65, is the co-founder of East Los Streetscapers, an art collective that grew out of the Chicano movement. He painted some of Boyle Heights’ most famous murals, such as “Life Flows at Aliso Pico” on First and Clarence Streets and “El Corrido De Boyle Heights” on the corner of Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue.

Healy calls the National Chicano Moratorium of August 29, 1970 “the wake-up call” for mural artists inspired by Chicano protesters. On that day, an estimated 30,000 demonstrators marched in the streets of East Los Angeles to call for an end to the Vietnam war, where thousands of Mexican Americans were dying.

Now, public art in Boyle Heights turns up in art books providing the history of such murals, which also draw visitors on art tours. Healy calls this “Cultural Tourism.” Where visitors see the murals as fine art on public walls, community members see their lives, culture, and struggle.

Murals today have changed in many ways. The popularity of graffiti-style murals has grown significantly. Exhibits like “Art in The Streets,” shown this past summer at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, introduce a new generation of muralists, who combine artistic elements with new graffiti styles.

A young artist participating in an aerosol workshop at Self Help Graphics & Art. / Credit: Ángel Lizárraga

However, graffiti art, also known as aerosol art, continues to have a negative association with gang tagging, often because they both involve writing a symbol or name with a spray can on a visible surface. Unlike tagging, graffiti art carries a style that goes beyond self-representation or a violent claim for territory; it’s an expression of artistic ability.

But tagging on both murals and public walls is a problem being tackled by residents, city leaders and street artists themselves. Even though several groups in Los Angeles work to preserve murals, it’s hard to prevent them from being destroyed.

“In the old days the murals were never tagged,” said Isabelle Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA). “There was respect from the community.”

When Boyle Heights muralist Raul Gonzalez sees teens tag murals he assumes a lack of understanding or a problem at home. “I don’t blame the youth. The murals don’t speak to [them] anymore.”

The California Art Preservation Act fines those who intentionally destroy works of fine art, including murals. Yet taggers have a reason to tag murals rather than blank walls. If they tag on a plain wall, the city or property owner can remove the graffiti immediately, but if they tag on a mural that has proper city permits, the law requires that an artist be given 90 days notice to clean the mural before it is whitewashed.

“Pride and love for our city should be the biggest protection that murals should have,” said Rojas-Williams.

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