Special to L.A. Weekly
In 1992, Earth Crew 2000 planned and completed the mural Undiscovered America to illustrate and celebrate the contributions made by indigenous people to this continent before European colonization; the mural is filled with beautiful illustrations depicting the Inca, Mayan, Aztec, Tongva, Lakota, Chumash, Mohawk and Iroquois people. 1992 marked the quincentennial arrival of Columbus to what is now known as the Americas, so Earth Crew 2000’s subversive painting of the mural served as an act of defiance and resistance to the false dominant narrative that has been given to us about Columbus as a discoverer; however, as you can clearly see, the entire mural is an artistically brilliant counter-narrative to Columbus and colonization.
Additionally, in Los Angeles during 1992, the city was in turmoil: the Rodney King riots had just taken place in late April, and gang activity and tag bagging were at their height. The Arts District was in disarray, specifically in the space where Undiscovered America was located, a neglected and desolate area plagued with substance abuse, food insecurity and homelessness. The mural infused life into that street and provided Los Angeles positive imagery with substance and culture at a time that it was so desperately needed. It managed to simultaneously promote peace, unity and culture.
The mural also set a precedent that the Arts District had never seen — a legally commissioned mural by graffiti artists, the first of its kind in the Arts District. This paved the way for artists using aerosol as their medium in the Arts District. Before Undiscovered America, you did not see artists using spray paint to create their work in the Arts District. Now, spray paint is not only being used by graffiti artists but also is being adapted (or more accurately being co-opted) by street artists. In the early 1990s, graffiti was still demonized by mainstream society whereas “cool urban street art” was not.
Moreover, Earth Crew 2000 was not only the first graffiti crew in the Arts District but also the first environmentally, politically and socially conscious graffiti art crew to paint a mural in the Arts District and quite possibly in the world. Their work around the world, including Mexico,Turkey, England and Brazil, precedes that of Banksy and Obey, both of whom are revered for social and political content in their art. The times, however, have changed.
Now, in 2018, 26 years after its original creation, this historic mural is restored and refurbished. However, much has changed in the space where the mural is located. Gentrification has altered the landscape and social fabric of the Arts District, and the very street in which the mural is located now has trendy arcades, bars, pizzerias and other hipster venues. Is the restoration of the mural, which was originally a subversive action toward colonization and a tribute to indigenous cultures in this continent, now going to be recontextualized into a mural of resistance toward gentrification? Since the Art District’s resurrection, many tenants and businesses have been displaced due to gentrification. Does the Earth Crew 2000 see gentrification as modern-day colonization? Did the graffiti pioneers of environmental, political and social change strike again? If so, the restoration could not have come at a better time.
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Former graffiti artist Daniel Ortega, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Los Angeles Southwest College.
Editor’s note: Local nonprofit Art Share L.A. in particular took this project to heart, helping raise funds and hosting the ceremonial rededication events and exhibitions that relaunched the restored mural — contextualizing it as one of the single most important, historic works in establishing the culture of the neighborhood. Art Share executive director Cheyanne Sauter tells the Weekly, “Art Share L.A. has been working to preserve the spirit and significance that the artists have brought to the Arts District. We were thrilled to help with the restoration of the Undiscovered America mural. Nuke’s passion to complete this project was more than inspiring — it reminded me again of why the work we do here matters.”