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Caltrans Replaces L.A. Freeway Murals With Wipe-Off Plastic Versions to Avoid Vandalism; 1 Poster Jacked Within Days

The stolen mural, a replica of Ruben Soto's "I know who I am."
The stolen mural, a replica of Ruben Soto's "I know who I am."
Caltrans

Oh, the ironies of city-commissioned graffiti!

The war between vandals and L.A. art "officials" started in 1984, when painters George Sportelli, Ruben Soto, Frank Romero and John Wehrle were paid to plaster the sides of the 101 in heartwarming, Olympics-themed signage.

"There was a time where these pieces of work were left alone" ...

... says Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler. But in recent years, night prowlers have covered them in bits of territorial blight, from street-level tags to BBQ grill paint shot from high-powered paint guns below.

So Caltrans, authority of all things artistic (obvio), got the bright idea to paint over the murals and replace them with pint-sized replicas, mounted onto the concrete retaining walls of the Hollywood Freeway.

Chandler describes the material as a thin, sturdy "a plastic-vinyl mesh... similar to what people use as a vegetation-like screen to try and cover up something in their backyard." He says it's "able to print colors and everything, and doesn't tear very easily." All outside graffiti "should be able to wipe off."

Yep. Romantic as a stolen Rembrandt.

The first of the posters -- replicating Sportelli's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" -- went up last summer. "Sometimes you just have to let go," the artist told blogdowntown, quite depressingly, upon viewing the results, and realizing his mural had been scaled to almost one-third its original size. What else was there to say, really:

Cute.
Cute.
Ed Fuentes via blogdowntown

Today, Caltrans unveiled three more minis: Sportelli's "Tony Curtis," Romero's "Going to the Olympics" and Soto's "I Know Who I Am."

Wells Fargo announced proudly that it fronted the $20,000 necessary to complete the project, while Caltrans emphasized that no taxpayer funds had been lost to the process.

Then came the greatest irony of all, so far: Yesterday, two days after it was attached to its smoggy new home using "plastic ties" and a "metal bar," according to Chandler, one half of "I Know Who I Am" was ripped down from the northbound wall by an unidentified thief.

In other words, in trying to see if some dorky plastic art poster could withstand the destructive will of L.A.'s street-art ideologues, city state officials just opened themselves up to a whole new kind of vandalism.

Don't laugh.

In part, because you're paying for the replacement. While CHP and LAPD officers hunt for the culprit -- "Hopefully it's not hanging in someone's loft, somewhere in Los Angeles," says Chandler -- Metro officials have offered up the $5,200 it'll take to replace the stolen goods. [Update: Chandler clarifies that the $5,200 was actually provided by Metro before the murals ever went up -- apparently in foresight that they might need replacing. Heh.]

Such a fitting development in the weird-ass struggle between museum heads and OG renegades for ownership of the graffiti tradition. See also: "Vandalism Follows 'Art in the Streets' Show at MOCA in Little Tokyo" and "Shepard Fairey Beat Up in Copenhagen, Called 'Yankee Hipster' and 'Obama Illuminati'." And here's LA Weekly columnist Mark Cromer, on the city's expensive fight against destroyers of the 1984 Olympics murals in particular:

It's unlikely that the graffiti vandals who set upon the city's great freeway murals like spray-paint hyenas have any appreciation of their dark accomplishment. ...

But whether they raised their spray cans in victory or not, the citywide murals that a generation ago Mayor Tom Bradley had hoped would mark L.A.'s transformation into the "mural capital of the world" are gone.

And chances are their slow death at the hands of vandals is an ominous sign that public art -- particularly in the form of large-scale murals -- may become a thing of the past; too expensive to develop and protect between evaporating funding for the arts and the relentless onslaught of vandalism.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]