Light and shadows dictate the appearance of the mural that's coming into existence at 312 W. Fifth St. in downtown L.A. On a 60,000-square-foot wall facing the alley that separates the SB Grand building from the Pershing Square Metro station, Robert Vargas is painting what is set to become the largest mural painted by a solo artist. He's working with brushes. “No grids. No projections. No stencils, which is really my style anyway,” he says. “In this case, it just happens to be a larger wall.”
When the mural, titled Angelus, is completed in early 2018, it will tell a story of Los Angeles — past, present and future — through an assemblage of scenes and the natural light that falls on the building as it shifts to create shadows and to highlight segments of the mural, reimagining the scenes within it. It will ultimately become what Vargas says is a statement of “hope and inclusivity” near an intersection that teems with both car and foot traffic.
At the end of an October workday, a shadow falls diagonally across the building, its steep incline reminiscent of nearby Angels Flight. Similarly, Vargas has named a portion of the mural above the shadow “Angels Flight” and has reached the midpoint of his work painting the three angels who will look over the mural. One angel is modeled after a local homeless woman he met in the neighborhood. Sometimes he can see her in the park from his vantage point on the scaffolding that rises and lowers down a 14-story building. Another angel is modeled after his mother, who spent years working downtown at Clifton's and then Bullock's, and would take Vargas to shop or catch a movie in the area when he was a child. Below the shadow is the partially painted image of a young Tongva girl, modeled after an L.A.-based child and wearing a brown-and-gold cap of Vargas' design. In early February, the artist says, the shadows will shift briefly to highlight the gold pattern in the girl's cap so that it looks like the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, Mexico, illuminating the connection between the Tongva and Aztecs. (The Tongva language is part of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages.)
Vargas descends from the scaffolding with splatter marks on his clothes, mismatched Chuck Taylors and a wide-brimmed hat covering his face. He inspects the mural from various angles before we head to a local coffee spot to chat. He's been actively at work on Angelus since August, but the project began when he got the green light in November 2013. It took several years of studying the wall to develop the design.
“For me, it's not about painting, having a hundred murals in the city. I'm actually kind of fond of looking at white walls from time to time,” he says. “I don't want to paint every mural, but the murals that I do paint, I want them to have a deeper meaning.”
In Angelus, part of that deeper meaning is connecting the lives of people who populate Los Angeles. It starts with the portrait of the Tongva girl. Vargas had already spent several weeks working on a slim portion of what will be the largest portrait of a Native American in the world. When asked why he decided to go for a record, he responds, “Because no one else has.”
His answer is simple but poignant. The Gabrielino-Tongva are the original Angelenos, yet their history and culture is not well known even among locals who were educated in L.A. schools. While the Gabrielino-Tongva are recognized by the state of California, they don't have federal recognition. The portrait in Vargas' mural pays respect to the region's earliest residents. Bernie Acuna, chairman of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, says he's “elated” Vargas is painting the portrait, adding that the art helps show that “we are here for sure and we are here to stay.”
Vargas isn't strictly a muralist; his art manifests in forms ranging from portraiture to events like the Red Zebra party he occasionally throws. Still, murals have become a significant calling card for the downtown-based artist. He painted the mariachi on the side of Boyle Heights bar Eastside Luv, the portrait of Suicidal Tendencies singer Mike Muir in the Arts District and a pop-art vision of The Doors at Venice hotel the Kinney. His work is site-specific, often reflecting the history, culture and people who'll see the walls as they go about their daily routines. “I think about the people that have to live with the mural once you've created the work — everyone that has to view it every day,” Vargas says. “I want them to feel just as connected and develop a relationship with it.”
Since beginning Angelus, Vargas has spent most of his days on site. He'll arrive early and spend some time talking to the homeless people he has met while taking in the wall. He'll get to work sometime around 7 a.m., take two or three breaks to come down from the scaffolding and inspect the progress, and finish around 4:30 p.m., in time to catch the start of the rush-hour flurry of humans at the intersection of Fifth and Hill. “There's a lot of energy in that intersection because there's a lot of intersecting counterpoints, social, economic points, where two blocks to the west is the Financial District and three blocks to the east is Skid Row and then all the hipsters and yipsters in between,” he says. “There's a lot going on there.”
And there's a lot going on in Angelus. The portrait of the Tongva girl and the “Angels Flight” are just two portions of a mural that will bring together many different facets of the city. His design includes a nod to El Aliso, a sycamore tree that stood for centuries and served as a landmark before it was axed and sold as firewood in the 1800s. The L.A. River will make an appearance, too. Vargas also says that Oscar De La Hoya will be posing for a portion of the mural where the famed boxer will be holding the Olympic torch, referencing both De La Hoya's past as a gold medalist and the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Games.
Vargas reps L.A. hard and his roots run deep. “My grandmother's grandparents are buried at Evergreen,” he says, referencing one of the oldest cemeteries in the city. He grew up in Boyle Heights and was “surrounded” by murals. There were the Chicano murals, like the ones emblazoned on the exterior walls of the Estrada Courts housing project. There were also the large, building-side portraits painted by Kent Twitchell, particularly the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra mural that can be viewed from the 110 as traffic inches through downtown. The murals that made the biggest impact on him, though, were the ones he would see near Seventh and Broadway downtown when he and his father would drop off his mom at her job at Bullock's. “I would always edge over to the side of the window where the Victor Clothing Building was, and I could see the Olympic mural that was there and some of the other artwork, and I thought it was the coolest thing.” When he was still a student at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Vargas painted his first mural.
His work isn't limited to the city. In fact, Vargas recently took a week off working on Angelus to head to the United Arab Emirates, where he was working on multiple projects. But, his work in Los Angeles speaks to a personal relationship and passion for the city that looks beyond the stereotypes and digs into the lives that inhabit it.
He says, “I want to mirror the community and show that everyone is beautiful and worth immortalizing.”