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L.A. muralist campaigns for his 'Resurrection'

January 5, 2009 |  3:30 pm


A small woman selling sizzling gorditas passed Ernesto de la Loza as he dabbed Liquid Shield on the cracked wall where his mural “Resurrection of the Green Planet” stretched out like a jeweled bird. Even with the aroma of fresh food wafting by, his gaze never left the injured surface.

For a quarter of a century, De la Loza, 59, has created murals in Los Angeles — 40 in all. But this one, which adorns a convenience store on the corner of César E. Chávez Avenue and Breed Street in Boyle Heights, is among only eight that still exist. The others were painted over or simply ravaged by neglect.

Now “Resurrection” faces a similar fate. In November, the owner of the building received a notice from the city informing him that he had 90 days to remove the graffiti defacing the 1991 mural or face a $450 fine.

Full restoration would cost between $40,000 and $50,000, a sum that neither De la Loza nor owner Raymond Ahn could afford. So while awaiting possible assistance from the Getty and Annenberg foundations, De la Loza spent the last several weeks cleaning the mural himself, at a cost to Ahn of at least $5,000.

The crumbling wall and fading paint confronting the artist highlighted the derelict state of murals throughout the city. Harsh sunlight and pounding rain corrode epidermal layers of walls, while insect infestations cause tiny cracks that eventually fracture surfaces. Would-be street artists use industrial-grade spray paint to claim territory, often tagging over muralists’ names and wiping out their credentials. Without restoration or conservation, murals in L.A. could become extinct.

The process is painstaking. Some days, De la Loza could be found crouching on the sidewalk using chopsticks to lift bubbles in the paint and smooth out the worn surface. Other days, he perched high on a ladder, meticulously applying what he called a sacrificial varnish to prevent spray paint from seeping into the walls and permanently destroying the high-grade, glossy enamel he has customarily used on his murals.

“People don’t understand the value of them,” he said. “It takes money to protect them — you have to service them.”

De la Loza insists that restoring “Resurrection” is about more than just avenging the crimes of vandals. The mural, he said, is part of the city’s rich Mexican American history.

At the center of its 15-by-50-foot expanse, a curandera, or healer, touches the head of a young woman, whose eyes appear closed in peaceful resignation. The rich brown of the woman’s skin pops against the red and orange of a healing aura surrounding them. To their right, a saintly figure pours spirals of blue and purple water from a hornlike vessel. The liquid cascades into a modern scene of microscopes and lab instruments.

De la Loza was inspired by an atmosphere of change, one that eagerly embraced new technology but also looked to the past for comfort and reassurance. He sees “Resurrection” as a bridge between the old world and the new.

“People think that the world stops at the border,” he said. “But this symbolizes what Chicano art is. We should be acknowledged for our contribution.”

The Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC, commissioned “Resurrection” in 1990 for $35,000, through a program called Neighborhood Pride: Great Walls. In total, Neighborhood Pride commissioned 105 murals throughout the city. Of those, 60% have been damaged, estimates Judy Baca, an artist and co-founder of SPARC. “Resurrection” is one of them.

“I wasn’t going to let this die,” De la Loza said. “Boyle Heights is a treasure — it has vibrancy. This is America.”

In fact, Los Angeles was once considered the mural capital of the country, if not the world. In recent years, though, that honor has been usurped by Philadelphia, which invests $3 million a year in public art. While Philadelphia's streets teem with kaleidoscopic color, Los Angeles’ streets are fading like a dying rainbow.

Adding to the deterioration of murals is the advent of graffiti. A truce once existed between artists and taggers — artists created public art without the danger of losing their work to turf-minded youth. But the relationship has eroded as new gangs have taken to the streets, looking for any available space to mark their territory.

As that coexistence ends, public art suffers, and organizations such as SPARC lament the demise, warning that if city officials do not promote conservation, Los Angeles’ artistic legacy will wither.
“Los Angeles has a history of producing works and then abandoning them,” Baca said. “We need a value system that says destroying art is a much greater crime than vandalizing a white wall.”

Baca estimates that the city would need to invest only $100,000 of its $10-million annual graffiti abatement program to maintain murals. With the funding, SPARC could hire small teams to assess damage and mend artworks.

Despite the city’s resistance to commit such funding, SPARC recently secured an unprecedented $2.1 million from the state, the city and the Santa Monica Conservancy to fully restore the Southland’s magnum opus, “The Great Wall of Los Angeles.”

Stretching half a mile along Coldwater Canyon between Oxnard and Burbank boulevards, “The Great Wall” was once a luminous tribute to California’s history, from leaping saber-toothed tigers to rioting zoot suiters. Weather, negligence and time have muted the bright tones and de-laminated the paint, however. For a thousand feet, the mural’s most fragile sections can be picked off like dried glue on skin.

The 1950s section has suffered the most. An Olympic runner who blazed in victorious orange and red is now dulled to gray and blue tones. Albert Einstein’s once earnest visage appears downtrodden after the loss of most of the warm hues in his face. Farther down in the World War I portion, a hand holding a giant reel of film is ominously sliced in half.

City officials point to the restoration of “The Great Wall” as a sign that Los Angeles has not abandoned its murals. Councilman Tom LaBonge, chairman of the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, plans to hold a joint conference with the Planning and Land Use Committee within two months in hopes of securing a greater percentage of the graffiti abatement program to restore and conserve murals.

“There is no question that there is not enough money, but murals are an important part of the L.A. landscape,” LaBonge said.

But De la Loza remains doubtful that with the sagging economy city officials will give much weight to the future of murals. For now, he is focused on finding grants to restore “Resurrection.”

“People want to bury their heads in the sand and say it’s not a problem, but every square inch is being attacked,” he said. “For me, it’s like my image got deleted. It’s like I don’t exist.”

-- Alicia Lozano

Photo: Ernesto de la Loza surveys his "Resurrection of the Green Planet." Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times