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.
Savoring their slow-motion elimination of the civic beauty that muralists like John Wehrle, Frank Romero, Glenna Boltuch Avila and Willie Herron brought Los Angeles would suggest that taggers were functioning even one brain cell above the pure nihilism that such mindless destruction reflects.
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.
“I'm not going to do it again,” says Wehrle, whose Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo, on the north side of the Hollywood Freeway at Spring Street, was one of the last murals destroyed. “I guess we were lucky it lasted as long as it did in this climate. Which doesn't look good for public art, does it?”
Wehrle, who first painted the surreal astral work in 1983, recalled he was paid $20,000 for the 207-foot-long depiction of classic Greek architecture floating in galactic repose amid the planets. In 2004 Wehrle was offered another $20,000 to repaint the mural after it had been badly damaged by vandals. A third restoration was discussed, he says, but eventually ruled out.
“Restoring mine was problematic as a result of the stuff that taggers are using these days,” Wehrle explains. “Heat-setting paint, barbecue paint, materials that are essentially impervious to removal for restoration.”
Instead of restoring Wehrle's piece, Caltrans opted to bury it in a coating of tombstone-gray paint. It did the same to Romero's vibrant Going to the Olympics, on the north side of the Hollywood Freeway between Alameda and San Pedro streets; Avila's refreshing L.A. Freeway Kids, on the south side of the Hollywood Freeway at Los Angeles Street; and Herron's Luchas del Mundo, on the north side of the Hollywood Freeway at Alameda.
“Caltrans tried protective coatings, but this strategy has become cost-prohibitive,” says Kelly Markham, a public-information officer with the transit agency. “Tagging has grown worse in recent years, and Caltrans has been unable to keep up with the vandalism. The decision to paint over the murals was a last resort.”
Wehrle, who is 68 and lives in Northern California, says he understands Caltrans' position. “Caltrans made a valiant effort to hold the line, but I don't have a lot of hope they'll be able to preserve public art.”
That appears to be an increasingly difficult fight throughout the city.
According to Pat Gomez, who's with L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, a recent survey of 400 murals that were either funded by the city or located on city property revealed that 90 are completely gone and another 197 have been marred by graffiti. The city was able to remove graffiti from 40 of the murals (some of which date back to 1972) that had been treated with protective coatings.
City Hall spends $70,000 annually on applying protective coatings and removing graffiti from murals in its jurisdiction — a pittance considering the scope of the battle for L.A.'s murals, but a sad reality in this cash-starved town.
“In a perfect world, we'd be able to maintain the many beautiful murals on our freeway system,” says Caltrans' Markham. “The reality is the necessary funding is not available.”
In July, Caltrans debuted a “mobile mural” of Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo — a one-third-scale replica on a vinyl and recycled-plastic sheet — hanging at the original mural's location. Yet for all their good intentions, the shrunken vinyl knockoff appears as an anemic flag of surrender to those who destroyed the city's once-epic murals.
In an interview last year, Romero mused that perhaps the only way to present murals in L.A. going forward is to make them as inaccessible as possible through elevation. Kent Twitchell's grand Harbor Freeway Overture, along the northbound Harbor Freeway, may support that perspective, since the towering work has survived largely unscathed since 1994.
But for the hundreds of murals peppered throughout L.A. that struggle to survive at ground level, the future looks grim.
Murals are “at the mercy of the lowest common denominator of the population,” Wehrle says. “The real artists that use a 'graffiti' style have respect for the work, but the taggers are just marking territory like animals. They're using high-pressure spray guns with the nozzles removed, effectively just projectile-vomiting all over other artists' work. They simply don't care.” —Mark Cromer
Mark Cromer can be reached at Mrcromer@aol.com.