Last October, Kristy Sandoval got a call from the owner of a Granada Hills tae kwon do studio. He'd seen her signature, "K. Sandoval," on a mural and wanted to commission a sign. "He kept saying, 'I need to speak to him, I need to speak to K. Sandoval. Where is he? Tell him that I need to talk to him.' I tried to tell him it was me. It took a couple times and he finally realized I was a woman," she says.
Sandoval had painted the mural, Decolonize, a few months earlier on the back wall of a Pacoima insurance office. It depicts a girl with feathers in her blue dreadlocks, freeing parrots and butterflies from a cage. The cage is a high window with bars across it; the girl's skirt is a maroon awning, popping out above the back door. "I don't know if he would have called me if I put 'Kristy,' " Sandoval says, "but it didn't stop him from hiring me."
Petite and soft-spoken, Sandoval, 31, says people often are surprised to see her painting a sign alone; after all, the job involves lifting heavy paint cans and climbing scaffoldings. But she's been taking her brush to the brick and stucco walls of the East San Fernando Valley for six years, to growing acclaim.
Sandoval invited women, and only women, to help her paint it. "Sure enough, people started questioning where all the men were. People noticed," she says. When passersby asked if they were a crew, Sandoval and her friends looked at one another. Someone said, "Hey, we should be," and that was the beginning of the muralist collective HOODsisters, which stands for Honoring Our Origins, Ourselves and Our Dreams — a group of a dozen activists, educators, writers, nurses and artists. They completed their first project in March: an image of Toypurina, an indigenous California medicine woman and rebellion leader from the Tongva tribe. Their next project is planned for October.
Addy Gonzalez, a co-founder of the San Fernando Valley art collective 11:11, sees female muralists on the rise. "There's an emergence of girls doing street art," she says. "Gender barriers are changing. It's more accepted now than 20 years ago."
Some of L.A.'s most iconic murals were painted by women, such as Judy Baca's The Great Wall of L.A., a half-mile-long homage to California's diverse history, painted between 1974 and 1979. Meanwhile, up-and-comers such as 28-year-old spray can artist Allison "Hueman" Torneros, are garnering major media attention (including the cover of the Weekly's People issue in May).
Sandoval discovered her craft while earning her BFA in interactive media design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where she'd walk the streets of the Mission District, admiring the neighborhood's famous murals. When she returned to Pacoima in 2008, she got in touch with L.A. muralists to learn the history and craft of street art.
Today, Sandoval has contracts to teach muraling workshops at various youth and community organizations, supplementing her income with commissions to paint signs and design logos. The mother of a 2-year-old daughter with partner Eddie Flores, a filmmaker and community organizer, she squeezes in HOODsisters projects on nights and weekends.
On a Thursday evening in May, she is conducting her latest workshop with fellow artist Rah Azul at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar. Sandoval, in a tank top and paint-splattered cutoffs, gently guides a dozen adults and teens as they paint the outline of the mural, a neighborhood skyline bisected by night and day. As a light breeze pushes through the lingering heat of the day, kids circle on BMX bikes; someone in a passing car hollers his support.
A decade ago, the idyllic gathering would have been illegal. From 2002 until last fall, murals were banned in Los Angeles — the result of a muddy-headed attempt to keep advertisers from using street art to covertly sell products and services. If a wall touched a city sidewalk, Sandoval explains, it was off-limits.
But legalization changed everything. New murals began sweeping the city's public facades, and Pacoima became a destination for public art. The stretch of Van Nuys housing the Assata, Decolonize and Toypurina murals is home to at least 20 other works of art, most painted by the well-known muralist/sign painter Hector Ponce and his 27-year-old, son Levi, who has been featured in the L.A. Times, CNN, BBC and Huffington Post.
Sandoval has collaborated with Levi Ponce on many murals. Both see public engagement in street art as a key way to uplift communities, but their philosophy of the creative process differs. Under the new mural ordinance, it takes $60 and a landlord's approval to paint a new mural legally — and the content must be approved in a neighborhood meeting. While the mural ordinance is overall a victory for street art, as Levi Ponce explained at a recent public art panel organized by 11:11, the approval process can limit creative freedom. Some artists want to maintain artistic control, especially if they're doing the work for free.
But Sandoval thinks community collaboration is essential, and she's willing to let go of her personal style in the interest of that. "Public art is for the public," she says, as she continues to direct the other painters at Tia Chucha's. "If people are part of the design process and see themselves reflected in the mural, they are that much more attached to it."
Luz Rodriguez, 31, also a member of HOODsisters, agrees: "Public art is about being able to work with the community, particularly young girls and mothers."
Though Sandoval has the most muraling experience of all the HOODsisters — with an expertise that allows her to fill in shadows and details after other members outline and color the image — she's hesitant to take too much credit. "I don't want it to become 'Kristy and the HOODsisters,' " Sandoval says.
But another person at Tia Chucha's that day disagrees. Denise Sandoval, a professor of Chicana/o Studies at Cal State Northridge (and no relation to Kristy Sandoval), declares, "Kristy should be in the spotlight. She is the next generation. She should be a leader."
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