20 of L.A.'s Most Iconic Murals
Los Angeles is a city of a thousand murals. Our endless sprawl creates the perfect canvas, and our art world is heavily influenced by Chicano muralists. In the 1960s and ’70s the Southland was even known as "the mural capital of the world."
However, it wasn't long ago that L.A. saw an 11-year moratorium on murals, a dark phase of public art development. After years of arguing with sign companies about what was permissible, the city essentially made murals illegal because there was no distinction between murals and signs. Eric Bjorgum, president of the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy, explains, "In 2010, the Ninth Circuit, in an opinion known as World Wide Rush, overturned a lower court decision and gave some discretion back to the city." The World Wide Rush decision found that the city of Los Angeles had the right to make exceptions to its sign ban.
The city then "began studying a mural ordinance, which was passed in 2013, with input from the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles and many groups that met to offer ideas on the ordinance," Bjorgum explains. Since this victory, we've seen a public painting boom. Bjorgum calls it "truly a renaissance period following a period of censorship." Bjorgum argues, "Mural conservation is important because these are examples of noncommercial speech that can stay in neighborhoods for decades. They become important to the people who live there, and they link the past to the present."
Here are some of the best and most treasured murals around town. There is no one narrative to Los Angeles, and our panoply of public painting reflects as much.
Courtesy Stephen Ziegler
20. Skid Row City Limits Mural by Winston Death Squad and Stephen Ziegler (2014)
For far too many, the story of downtown Los Angeles is the story of homelessness, a direct consequence of late capitalism. After all, Los Angeles consistently ranks as the No. 1 place in America for chronic homelessness, and our housing crisis is only making matters worse. This mural was completed a year after the mural ban was lifted. Designed by the Winston Death Squad Collective, it was painted by residents of Skid Row and offers a map of how large the now officially recognized Skid Row district actually is. "This is about the desperate need for the Skid Row community to identify with itself and acknowledge itself," one of the collective's members told us in 2014.
San Julian between Fifth and Sixth streets, downtown.
We Are Not a Minority
© Robin Dunitz
19. We Are Not a Minority by Mario Torero (assisted by Rocky, El Líon and Zade) (1978)
It's all in the name, isn't it? This ode to Che Guevara is a mantra for local Chicanos and other so-called minorities — they are not minorities in their own neighborhoods and enclaves. It's based on a black-and-white silkscreen by Torero that says "You Are Not a Minority," but he felt for this piece it was best to change "you" to "we," to be more encompassing and collaborative. It was restored in 1996.
Estrada Courts, 3217 W. Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights.
© Robin Dunitz
18. You Are the Star by Thomas Suriya (1983)
Hollywood and its adjoining neighborhoods have many colorful public paintings that acknowledge or address film, television and music's role in shaping 20th-century Los Angeles. From the Nancy Sinatra mural to the one with Gizmo and Brad Pitt in Los Feliz, there are many nods to Hollywood lore. But this one — You Are the Star by Thomas Suriya — is a surreal classic. Everyone from Superman to Shirley Temple and Cary Grant is in the audience watching you, the real star. Fan service? No doubt. But this is a clever piece that acknowledges that it's really fans that make stars ... and not the other way around.
Wilcox Avenue & Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood.
© Robin Dunitz
17. A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy by Eliseo Art Silva (1995)
This Westlake mural was commissioned through SPARC, the Social & Public Art Resource Center, and takes on 4,000 years of Filipino and Filipino-American history, which is no small order. The wall is parsed into two parts. The left half is the historical account of Filipinos, which leads "up to the awakening of Filipino national and political consciousness," the Mural Conservancy's website says. The right half is dominated by an enormous bird with notable "Filipino-Americans on its wings, the farmworkers on the bottom, and the youth and community on the right." The mural stands next to a community garden.
1660 Beverly Blvd., Westlake.
© Art Mortimer
16. Gateway to the San Gabriel Valley by Art Mortimer (2011)
The San Gabriel Valley is such a vital part of Southern California's past and present, and this mural is a great reminder of all the good stuff the SGV has to offer. Painted along what was an otherwise boring stretch of road by prolific local painter Art Mortimer, this gateway to the east is an evocative reminder of the region's agricultural significance. While many of the other murals on this list take on more difficult sociopolitical themes, it's nice to include a few that capture our adjoining cities' and neighborhoods' sense of whimsy, too.
569 E. Mission Road, Alhambra.
© Ian Robertson-Salt
15. Untitled by Retna and El Mac (2006)
Retna and El Mac are two of L.A.'s best-known street artists and muralists. When they work together, it's a harmonious blend of stylized lines and cultural reference points. There are many of their collaborations sprinkled around town, but this is one of the most vivid, though its meaning isn't immediately obvious.
5500 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
© Robin Dunitz
14. Brandelli’s Brig by Art Mortimer (1973)
This curious mural is perhaps one of the most playful compositions on this list. It's a meta billboard of a billboard of a billboard. It depicts the bar owner and his wife in the foreground, with a painter (presumably Mortimer) painting them on the billboard, and so on. Brandelli's Brig is like so many other walls on this list in that it's one of the few authentic visuals from its era that still exists in a rapidly evolving neighborhood.
1515 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice.
Courtesy Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles
13. Untitled by Vhils (2014)
Portuguese street artist Vhils (Alexandre Farto) used a unique chiseling approach to carve out the shadows in this Chinatown piece, which stands out for its technique and is another one commissioned the year after the moratorium was broken. The artist was inspired by the history of Chinatown and wanted to create a simple, positive impression on an otherwise mundane wall. As the neighborhood will likely develop over the coming year, we'll see how the look of the area is preserved or not.
759 N. Spring St., Chinatown.
12. Elliott Smith Figure 8 Wall
This is one of several pieces on this list that truly began as a simple advertisement for the Solutions! audio repair store inside its now famous walls. It gained notoriety when it was photographed for the cover of the 2000 album Figure 8 by Elliott Smith, who was living in Silver Lake at the time. Since Smith's 2003 death, it's become the unofficial memorial to the late, troubled singer. Recently part of the mural has been removed to make way for windows at a new bar, which is named Angeles after one of Smith's songs (cringe). It's the most minimal painting on this list, as it was never probably intended to be as iconic as it now is. Like it or not, it's one of the few remaining hallmarks of old Silver Lake. And Solutions is a great local business.
4334 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake.
©Gil Ortiz (MCLA)
11. Isle of California by Victor Henderson, Terry Schoonhoven and Jim Frazin (L.A. Fine Arts Squad) (1972)
This post-collapse image is both gorgeous and gets more relevant by the hour. Its subject is a beautiful piece of freeway architecture minus the actual road. We're supposed to gather this is post-earthquake or perhaps after some sort of extinction-level event. But it looks quite serene as well.
1616 Butler Ave., Sawtelle.
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