Muralist Frank Romero sues Caltrans for painting over freeway work
Frank Romero, a noted muralist and pioneering Chicano painter, is suing Caltrans for painting over a mural he created along the Hollywood Freeway downtown in conjunction with the 1984 Olympics.
Last year, muralist Kent Twitchell won a $1.1-million settlement against the U.S. government and others for painting over his portrait of fellow artist Ed Ruscha on a federally owned building in downtown L.A.
Romero's suit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, contends that sometime after June 1, 2007, a Caltrans work crew painted over his 102-foot-long, 20-foot-high mural, "Going to the Olympics," erasing it from a wall at Alameda Street. The episode took place, the suit says, without Romero having been given the advance notice required under a 1980 state law protecting artists' "moral rights." The notice provides 90 days for the artist to save or relocate works of public art before a building's owner can have them removed.
Romero, who could not be reached Friday, is seeking a court order to have the mural restored and then maintained at the transportation department's expense. If restoration is not possible, he wants the mural removed to another, presumably safer spot. The suit also asks for restitution and damages, including punitive damages that, under state law, the judge would award to a nonprofit fine arts organization.
Patrick Chandler, spokesman for Caltrans District 7,which includes Los Angeles County, said Friday that he could not comment on "something going through the legal process now." He also declined to say whether Caltrans is concerned it could be vulnerable to other "moral rights" suits by artists over freeway murals.
"Hurray!" said Judith Baca, a mural artist and activist, when told of Romero's suit. She said that, together with Twitchell's successful case, which she regards as "a great service" to muralists, Romero's action shows that "artists are starting to stand up and say, `Enough is enough.' We're in a terrible situation, losing work after work."
In "Going to the Olympics," Romero used a combination of bright and pastel colors and a cartoon-like style to depict five cars driving in a row against a backdrop of palm trees; a valentine heart hovered above each vehicle. The mural had been defaced by graffiti taggers in the past, then restored by the artist. "It's a classic and beautiful Chicano piece, painted with rough, almost broom-like movements of his hand," Baca said. "Losing Frank Romeros in the city of Los Angeles is not such a smart thing to do. He's an internationally known artist of importance. He's an asset."
The suit says that Romero, born in 1941, has painted more than 15 murals in L.A. After studying at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) and Cal State Los Angeles, he was part of a collective called "Los Four" whose 1974 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is considered a landmark in Chicano art. His late 1980s oil painting, "Freeway Wars," is in LACMA's collection, and two other 1980s works, "Car" and "Death of Ruben Salazar," belong to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.
Baca said that her organization, SPARC (Social and Public Resource Center), is collecting petition signatures in a Save L.A. Murals campaign. With tens of millions of dollars now spent annually on graffiti cleanup in the region, its aim is to persuade government agencies to channel some of that money toward restoring murals and running educational programs that would deter tagging and instill respect for murals and their surrounding neighborhoods. Also, instead of jailing graffiti vandals, the campaign contends it would be less expensive and more constructive to start a SPARC-supervised program that would put them to work cleaning and restoring damaged murals.
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: "Going to the Olympics" mural, seen during the 1990s. Credit: Handout Photo
Photo: Frank Romero at his mural in 2001. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times