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Venice Art Walls, Living Canvases on the Beach, Turn 50

A cross-section of the wall

A cross-section of the wall

It takes a lot to call attention to yourself at Venice Beach. Then

again, sometimes all you have to do is stand around for half a century.

This year, the iconic art walls of Venice Beach -- 3,120 square feet

of concrete canvas that beckon to the artist like a siren song -- turn

50. The walls have outlived wars, the presidents that waged them,

recessions, VCRs, disco and TV's Donny & Marie. How can a Statue of Liberty juggling chain saws or a medical-marijuana dispensary compete with that?

Built originally as a part of the Venice Pavilion, a venue for

concerts and performances, the walls once stood nearly 10 feet tall. A

constant target of illegal tagging over the years, the pavilion soon

became known by the moniker "Venice Graffiti Pit." It fell into

disrepair and became inundated with homeless people and trash.

Support for the walls ebbed and flowed through time, depending on

which way the aerosol was blowing. In the late 1990s, the stage and some

walls were removed and several tons of sand were brought in and bermed

up to the level of the old concrete tables, some of which are still

visible today poking through the surface. The addition of the sand

created an elevated knoll that effectively cut the remaining walls down

to a height of 6 feet.

Since June 2007, the two surviving walls have come under the strict

control of ICU (In Creative Unity) Art. Artists are required to submit a

detailed sketch of what they would like to paint and the work must be

devoid of any derogatory, racist or otherwise inflammatory remarks or

themes. Then, and only then, are they given a permit for a designated

time and area of the wall to paint on.

Stash (rhymes with Josh) Maleski, ICU curator of the walls for more

than a decade, recalls the backlash against the idea in the beginning.

"At first there was some resistance to the idea of controlling the

walls, but then artists began to realize that their work was protected

much longer. A guy could labor for hours on a piece, only to see it

covered up the next day by someone else. The permit system prevents this

from happening."

A special permit called a "limited" does not require an approved

sketch beforehand and is used for painting on the cones (formally

chimneys for the pavilion fire pits) or tabletops.

"It's for people who just want to show up and blow off a little steam," Stash explains -- or, in this case, a little aerosol.

Venice Art Walls, Living Canvases on the Beach, Turn 50

No one contacted by the Weekly could remember a time when the

walls did not have paint on them in one form or another. Examination of

the walls bears this out. Once a smooth and flat gray surface of

reinforced concrete, the wall now more closely resembles the rough and

craggy surface of the moon. In some spots, pieces have broken away. Seen

edgewise, they tell a story of their own, like the growth rings of a

tree. Trapped within the layers are the passions of artists from long

ago.

And like all things middle-aged, the walls have begun to swell at

their midsections. One of the more popular walls to paint on, the

east-facing wall that looks toward the boardwalk, is a full 3 inches

thicker than its original 4 inches and is burdened by an additional

8,000 pounds of paint.

The permit process has accelerated this growth by allowing artists to

use base coats that are rolled on to serve as a fresh canvas before

they begin their work. Where once artists tried to do a "hit and run,"

applying only a thin layer of spray paint, today's artists add an extra

.016 of an inch with each new mural.

At that rate, with an average of four complete coverings per week,

the wall will reach the boardwalk by the year 4068, assuming there is

anything left to write about.