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Arroyo Seco Mural Feud

STANDING ON A BRIDGE overlooking the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Los Angeles rivers, Friends of the Los Angeles River founder Lewis MacAdams stares at the cement-walled streams and indulges in a moment of nostalgia. “This was the birthplace of FoLAR,” he says of the desolate area. “I came down here one day and saw how blighted and disgusting it was and just thought, ‘I have to do something about this.’ ”

Twenty-two years after MacAdams founded FoLAR, however, the stretch of river that inspired him has landed his group in a bizarre battle with County Supervisor Gloria Molina, leaving the nonprofit organization potentially liable for thousands of dollars in cleanup costs.

It all stems from last September’s well-attended international graffiti event, “Meeting of Styles,” co-sponsored by FoLAR and Crewest Gallery, operated by graffiti artist Man One. Thousands of people gathered to watch more than 100 graffiti artists from around the world create a giant mural along the intersection of the two flood-control channels.

Colorful and eclectic, the mural was seen as a vast improvement over the barren, gray void of cement it covered. But while written about glowingly in the press and the blogosphere, the mural inspired the wrath of Molina.

On December 18 the County Board of Supervisors, led by Molina, passed an “emergency measure” ordering FoLAR to whitewash the mural, or pay the bill if the Department of Public Works has to paint it over for them. Molina spokeswoman Roxane Márquez went so far as to call the mural “a public nuisance and a safety hazard,” justifying the board’s invocation of an “emergency.”

Molina will not comment to L.A. Weekly on the nature of the supposed emergency, but was quoted in the L.A. Times last November bashing FoLAR as having “violated their own mission,” and declaring, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

Molina’s harsh words have baffled the river organization, which generally gets kudos for its attempts to beautify the flood-control channel, one of the most barren and infamous spectacles in Los Angeles.

“She’s on the warpath,” says MacAdams of Molina. “She’s really trying to bring us down over this.”

Though MacAdams doesn’t fully understand Molina’s rage, he has his suspicions. Surveying the Arroyo Seco section of the channel, he points to a large, purple-haired wood nymph spray-painted on the south side of the floodwall and notes her bare, green chest.

“Those are the tits in question,” he says, shaking his head.

Could the Arroyo Seco mural fuss really be over a pair of green breasts?

Last year, FoLAR petitioned the City Council to allow a mural to be painted along the Los Angeles River floodwalls near the César Chavez bridge. The council approved the proposed mural — of utopian visions of the Los Angeles River. A lack of funds shelved the project, however.

With the utopian mural on hiatus, Man One and “Meeting of Styles,” whom MacAdams had earlier recruited to help with the César Chavez project, needed a new location for their own event. FoLAR offered its support, and it was agreed that the Arroyo Seco would be the perfect spot. “Why not paint someplace like that?” asks MacAdams. “It’s a completely degraded area.”

The county, which has jurisdiction over the Arroyo Seco, granted Man One the permit for his event, but after the mural was finished, it became clear that the county regretted its decision.

On the morning of October 18, FoLAR received a call from the office of Gloria Molina stating that the supervisor and several members of her staff were coming to FoLAR’s office in a few hours. When she arrived, Molina was livid and less than subtle about her distaste for the mural’s content. According to MacAdams and other FoLAR members who were present, Molina burst into their office and demanded: “Why don’t you put a pair of tits on your FoLAR T-shirts?” — a presumed reference to the topless green wood nymph.

Man One, who was at the meeting, says, “I asked them specifically what they found offensive, because if it was something specific we could consult the artist and have it touched up. But they just said ‘you know what’s offensive,’ and left it at that. There was no dialogue. They were there to flex some muscle, and show who’s boss.”

“When you have a permit to create a mural,” he explained later, “and then you have to remove it because someone in power doesn’t like it, without any dialogue, that’s censorship. That’s being a dictator.”

“THIS ISN’T ABOUT defining what’s art and what’s not,” insists Molina spokeswoman Márquez, who implied that the painting on the river wall could cause the same problems as tagging by gangs, saying, “This is a matter of public safety. We lost two constituents this year to graffiti-related violence.”

Asked why the permit for the mural was granted at all if such graffiti art — not gang tagging — can lead to violence, Márquez started talking about a different mural project altogether. Clearly confusing Man One’s Arroyo Seco mural with the utopian-themed mural proposed near the César Chavez bridge, Márquez erroneously stated, “The mural was supposed to be about visions of the Los Angeles River.”

Beyond her office’s confusion over which mural is which, Molina’s staff is now involved in a war of words over who is responsible for removing the additional graffiti that has sprung up. Molina’s staff says FoLAR should be responsible, and FoLAR has agreed — to an extent.

“We reached an agreement with them that we would remove the surrounding graffiti one time,” says FoLAR executive director Shelly Backlar.

“Quite the contrary,” counters Molina’s policy director, Gerry Hertzberg. “In my one telephone conversation with [MacAdams], I restated that as long as the mural provided a magnet to tagging and graffiti we expected them to do the graffiti removal.”

Though tagging around the mural was minimal early last fall, soon after Molina’s meeting with FoLAR in mid-October a large portion of the mural was mysteriously and professionally whitewashed; the message “Cultivate Love” was painted over, but the nymph with nipples was left undisturbed.

Molina denies she ordered the section removed. Department of Public Works officials insist they are not responsible. “If it was us, we would have finished the job,” says Public Works assistant deputy director Mark Pestrella. Whoever the culprit, the partial whitewash has created a blank slate for taggers, leading to an explosion of tagging — which the county is now holding FoLAR responsible for.

One such tag depicted a man sporting an uber-erection and saying, “We rock when we want, where we want.”

Another tag simply said, “Gloria Molina 187”; 187, for those who slept through the gangster-rap era, is police code for homicide. That particular tag brought police to the doorsteps of both FoLAR and Man One, and, rhetorically at least, helped bolster Molina’s otherwise tenuous association of the now-obscured mural with violence.

In reaction, shortly before New Year’s Eve, the Department of Public Works buffed over all the new, unauthorized graffiti. (Curiously, according to Pestrella, the 187 tag had already been removed — but again, not by the county, he insists.) Pestrella says he intends to bill FoLAR for the buff job — on orders from the Board of Supervisors. “We expect the bill to be upwards of $1,000,” he says.

That bill could be just the first of many for the nonprofit FoLAR.

With the county’s emergency deadline to remove the entire mural approaching in mid-March, FoLAR members don’t know how they’re going to handle a nasty feud with the county government that they did not invite, involving a county permit that was not granted to FoLAR but to the artist Man One. If more graffiti shows up, FoLAR could be billed by public works again — and again and again.

Backlar of FoLAR is perplexed that something as seemingly innocuous as a mural can be wasting so much time — both the county’s and her own. “Like there aren’t more important things to deal with,” she says. “You’ve got homeless people living in the river, for goodness’ sake.”

MacAdams, however, sees a larger point.

“We’re out ahead of the bureaucrats and it’s making them nervous. This event opened doors to whole new communities who had never been around the Los Angeles River.”

The coming months will reveal just how costly that introduction is going to be.

To see before and after images of the mural, go to ?blogs.laweekly.com/lurker/river.