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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10. Mural Mile by various artists
Mural Mile is a stretch in Pacoima along Van Nuys Boulevard between San Fernando Road and Foothill Boulevard where local artists, led by Levi Ponce, have reclaimed their walls in response to the old mural ban. Works such as the one above are trying to confront and challenge the largely Hispanic Pacoima's identity and its reputation as being not one of the most beautiful parts of town.
13520 Van Nuys Blvd., Pacoima.
9. Our Mighty Contribution
Colloquially known as the Crenshaw mural, this vast mural is in many ways South L.A.'s answer to the Valley's Great Wall. A series of portraits and musings on black culture's huge influence on California and American culture as a whole, the work represents a variety of styles. It's credited to many local artists such as George Combs, Alonzo Davis, Lester Gones, Mark Steven Greenfield, David Hammons, Ulysses Jenkins, Joseph Sims, Kinshasha Conwill, Roland Welton and Timothy Washington.
Crenshaw (between 50th & 52nd streets), Hyde Park.
8. The Pope of Broadway by Eloy Torrez (1985)
This downtown L.A. staple was restored earlier this year. It was originally conceived of as a thank-you by the Victor Clothing Company to its Hispanic clientele. The 70-foot-tall mural depicts actor Anthony Quinn, raised in East L.A. and an early Latino film star, in a Christ-like pose as if dancing, and it's another one of L.A.'s now-classic '80s murals.
Victor Clothing Company, 240 S. Broadway, downtown.
7. City of Dreams/River of History by Richard Wyatt Jr. (1996)
Union Station has been one of the main gateways into L.A. since it opened in 1939, and Richard Wyatt's artwork in the East Portal is an important addition to that space. His City of Dreams/River of History seeks to be a broad introduction to the hues — of the sky, the flora, fauna and skin — of the area. Some of the faces are smiling, but it's not a crass exaggeration. There are some ambivalent faces as well. It's very mildly confrontational, and not as straightforward as it may appear at first glance. Wyatt is a prolific local painter whose work adorns other local landmarks including Watts Tower and the Capitol Records building.
Union Station East Portal, 800 N. Alameda St., downtown.
6. Moratorium: The Black and White Mural by Willie Herrón and Gronk (1973)
Also the site of We Are Not a Minority, Estrada Courts is home to another significant Chicano mural from the '70s. Moratorium depicts the Chicano Moratorium, which was a movement of anti-Vietnam activists that peaked in a protest in 1970 where LAPD started dropping tear gas and shooting at protesters. At least four people were killed in the melee. Ruben Salazar, a Mexican-American reporter for the L.A. Times, was killed when Deputy Thomas Wilson of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department threw tear gas into a cafe. Wilson was never punished for this unnecessary murder. The mural of the chaotic, brutal police attack is the closest thing L.A. has to a Guernica.
Estrada Courts, 3221 Olympic Blvd., Boyle Heights.
5. L.A. Freeway Olympics Murals by Kent Twitchell, Willie Herrón, Richard Wyatt, Glenna Avila, Frank Romero, John Wehrle, Judy Baca, Roderick Sykes, Alonzo Davis and Terry Schoonhoven
I cheated and lumped together all of these amazing murals, as they were all commissioned for the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Several of them unfortunately do not exist anymore, despite efforts to restore them all over the decades. Regardless, this collection of 10 murals along the 110 and the 10 freeways is one of the widest and most memorable series of large-scale public art in L.A. history.
4. Harbor Freeway Overture by Kent Twitchell (1993)
Kent Twitchell is one of the most recognizable local muralists, if not one of the world's leading living muralists. His work hinges on the photorealistic, but he thinks of his work as more expressive than that. And it is. He has a knack for capturing human expressions. And this tableau, which looms over the 110 freeway downtown, is probably one of his most viewed, as thousands upon thousands of motorists pass it daily. It's also his largest painting. It depicts members of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, most notably Ralph Morrison, the bearded lead violinist and concertmaster, on the right and violinist Julie Gigante on the left. Among other musicians, it also features then Mitsubishi CEO Tachi Kiuchi, a wink by the artist to the project's patron. It's also a reminder that the arts form part of this area's cultural and industrial backbone. The structure it's painted on is now a Target parking lot.
943 W. Eighth St., downtown.
3. The Negro in California History by Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston (1949)
This mural was commissioned by Golden State Mutual to reflect on the black experience in California. The company was an early example of successful black business in the L.A. area. It catered to a clientele that couldn't get insurance otherwise. The patrons wanted this mural to reflect the brutal history of America and its relationship to both natives and displaced slaves. Black painters Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff conceived of what are technically two pieces, Alston's Colonization and Exploitation and Woodruff's Settlement and Development. Each composition is full of many allusions to the complex and mostly oppressive several hundred years of black people in America. The building has since been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, 1999 W. Adams Blvd., Adams-Normandie.
2. América Tropicale by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1932)
In 1932, La Plaza Art Center commissioned a mural from a young David Alfaro Siqueiros. His patron thought it was going to be a light, quaint design. Instead, Siqueiros delivered a gruesome, caustic critique of racism. It depicts an “indigenous Mexican worker lashed to a double cross beneath a fierce eagle,” as Daina Beth Solomon explained in 2013. This wall was literally whitewashed shortly after its initial display in 1932. It has since been restored.
125 Paseo de la Plaza, downtown.
1. The Great Wall of L.A. by Judy Baca (and various artists) (completed in 1981)
One of the longest murals in the world, this sprawling Valley Glen painting in a drainage channel was the first public art project by the Social and Public Art Resource Center. SPARC founder Judith Baca was approached by the Army Corps of Engineers to help beautify this barren stretch of wall. She imagined it as a tapestry trying to capture the vast expanse of L.A. stories “as seen through the eyes of women and minorities.” She enlisted the help of 35 artists to design the wall and 400 local at-risk youths in the area to paint it over the course of five summers. It covers everything from pre-historical California up into the 1950s, from the zoot suit riots to gay rights battles, representing various perspectives, power struggles and historical events. Restored in 2011, it is one of most ambitious public art projects in California history.
12920 W. Oxnard Blvd., Valley Glen.
If you want to see more or to support murals, please visit SPARC and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which relies on donations to survive. And in a world where arts funding is likely in dire straits, organizations like this are even more crucial.
CORRECTION: This post was updated to correctly identify Levi Ponce as the artist behind the mural Pacoima Revolution. We regret the error.