Twelve stories above Pershing Square in the heart of downtown, Robert Vargas paints.
He paints along the side of a beige, converted apartment building at 5th and Hill streets six days a week — soon to be seven. Lathering on brown, ochre, yellow and red Behr paints with 4-inch-wide house brushes, he works diligently on a multicultural mural that he says will be the largest by a single artist in the world. The current record holder is Ernesto Espiridion Rios Rocha, who holds the Guinness World Record for a 18,066–square-foot mural in Mazatlán, Mexico.
Vargas' mural is projected to be 60,000 square feet. So far, one can make out the face of a Tongva Indian girl, her gold headdress and winged women dancing above her. The Tongva Indians were among the first recorded people to settle the L.A. Basin, which means a lot to Vargas, who is part Native American. His mural is titled Angelus — a combination of “angel” and “us,” and a play on the artist's treasured hometown.
“I'm doing it completely freehand, with no grids, no projections, without any of that, and that's what makes it a feat,” says the seventh-generation Angeleno, who was born and raised in Boyle Heights, about a mile and a half from the mural. He lives in a downtown loft about three blocks away.
“This mural is really a celebration of the diversity of the city,” says Vargas, who was identified by L.A. Weekly as “downtown L.A.'s best-known artist” in 2011.
“It's really a mural of hope as well. With the right time and the right message, a mural can really transcend a neighborhood or a community. In the spirit of accessibility, having a platform such as I'm painting right now, allows me not only to reach art aficionados but also the people who wouldn't otherwise have access to museums and galleries.”
From his paint-stained perch, which is a wooden platform only about 3 feet across, he can see the madding crowd below. He can see the wobbling ice-skaters on Pershing Square. The homeless people shuffling to and fro or begging for change. Cars backing up, winding their way through downtown. Businessmen and women striding to and from their jobs in the Financial District. Construction workers, security guards, police, the mass of men and women leading not-so-quiet lives of desperation.
Though he has to remain focused on his mural (“I'm risking my life every single day,” he says), Vargas can still see endless streams of people — tourists, residents, drifters, hipsters, teens, all sorts — descending into the subway and ascending on the escalator from the depths of the underground. He is up there from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. nearly every day, so he has seen more than most.
“The mural is situated just in the center of the city, in the heart of the city, where you have some of the destitute right below, and then you have Skid Row (down 5th Street), and you have the counter to that with the Financial District,” he says. “People are coming home from work, people are coming into downtown to go to work. People are visiting L.A. for the first time and exiting that subway stop. My mural is the first thing they see. That's their introduction to downtown Los Angeles. So the content that you put up there — it's really important. As someone who's native to the city, I feel a bit parental about how that's put up there, as a means of just representing the city well.”
Roots in the L.A. Art Scene
Robert Vargas is not an unknown quantity in the art world. He has had gallery shows in downtown L.A.'s Arts District, New York, Chicago, Miami, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
He became a fixture during L.A. Art Walk, when he would do live portraits and street scenes from 6 p.m. to well after 1 a.m., and sell them to admiring fans and subjects.
He painted garments on models live on the runway during L.A. Fashion Week. In 2010, Vargas founded a monthly event, Red Zebra, a fusion of art, fashion, music and comedy, inside the Crocker Club. He still organizes the free event quarterly.
“I wanted to advance the dialogue of the creative arts in Los Angeles,” he says. “It was always a free event. I wanted to give back to the artists. On the Westside, it would be a $50 ticket. Really, it's me spreading the love.”
A long-haired native son, Vargas graduated from the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts in Monterey Park, and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he obtained a bachelor's in fine art in painting and drawing.
Before Angelus, which he started in September, Vargas had a solo show at Sur le Mur gallery in the Pacific Design Center. At the opening in August, he painted a live portrait of actor William H. Macy, to a fair degree of fanfare and smartphone picture and video takers.
A former booking and marketing director at the Conga Room, Vargas worked with investors Jennifer Lopez and Jimmy Smits, and booked dozens of acts, including Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Buena Vista Social Club, the Sugar Hill Gang, Los Lobos, War, Tierra and Mariza.
Since 2004, he has enjoyed steady work as a visual artist. He gets commissions from companies — some of them super corporate — to paint all over the world. Vargas has completed dozens of murals throughout Los Angeles, including a colorful portrait of The Doors at the Kinney hotel in Venice; a black-and-white mural of Mike Muir, frontman of Suicidal Tendencies, on the 6th Street Bridge; a Japanese woman on the side of a sushi restaurant in the Spring Arcade corridor (titled Geisha Walking in a Dream); and a 2013 portrait of a woman ringed in gold at 6th and Spring streets, titled Our Lady of DTLA. That mural, which helped spark a mini-mural revival downtown, has been featured in several commercials and in the 2017 movie Roman J. Israel, Esq., starring Denzel Washington.
“I see it outside of my window,” says Adam Marz, 32, a production designer who lives in a downtown apartment across the street. “It's shaped my view of Los Angeles. And I moved here from Canada just a year and a half ago, to follow my dream. It's sort of a symbol of that. You know, the access to your dreams, I guess. The creativity.”
Marz's friend, Aaron Dewoskin, a former downtown denizen, agrees that Vargas' work has made an impact.
“His technique is absolutely impeccable. It's miraculous,” says the 40-year-old architect. “Anybody who can generate that kind of realism and imagery as fast as he does is remarkable. It's obviously been practiced for tens of thousands of hours.
“I'm not a person who mistakes God-given talent for practice — the two of them go together. His understanding of light and dark is really, really perfect, and unique, too.”
Vargas says all the old and new arrivals and energies are combining to make Los Angeles a special place. “Right now we're witnessing the dawning of a new age in Los Angeles. A creative golden age. Not only in visual art but also in music, in fashion and in performance. It's a really exciting time to be here in L.A. You have a lot of established brands relocating from other cities, coming into Los Angeles and just kind of reinventing themselves. Mix that with homegrown talent, and you get a cross-pollination of creative activity that's uniquely Los Angeles.
“And we're not trying to be New York, Paris or London. Los Angeles is coming up. We're on par, or coming on par, with other great art cities, with our own aesthetic, with our own sound, with our own voice. That's been going on for years, but I think now all of it is coming together.”
Angelus Is Us
While the mural Angelus is still taking shape and won't be complete until March, Vargas has ambitious plans for his pièce de résistance. At the base, he plans to depict an Asian American woman pouring a jug into the Los Angeles River. An old sycamore tree — once a landmark for new arrivals — will be part of the pastiche. An African American homeless woman Vargas met on the streets below is depicted as an angel. Oscar de la Hoya's arm will be carrying an Olympic torch. Snoop Dogg, a buddy and business partner, will also make an appearance.
“Where else do you see a mural of a Tongva Indian in Los Angeles?” asks Vargas, who is of Mexican descent, as well as Lakota Indian. “Where else do you see a homeless person as an angel in Los Angeles? Nowhere. But I'm that messenger. This is a nod to my Asian brothers and a nod to my Native brothers and a nod to my homeless sisters.”
Perhaps most spectacularly, Vargas' mural will tell an intriguing subnarrative once a year. On Feb. 9, the shadows are anticipated to fall on the mural and the Indian girl's headdress so that one can see a pyramid. This is meant to represent the Temple of the Sun in Teotihuacán, an ancient city in Mexico, about 25 miles northeast of Mexico City.
“My vision is that this becomes a destination for people to see that subnarrative being told,” Vargas muses. “The Tongva Indians are Uto-Aztecan, so there's the connection. Teotihuacán was the city of the gods, and where we are is the City of Angels. So there's a connection there.”
Vargas says he has looked at the side of the building — officially known as the SB Grand at 312 W. 5th St. — and taken photographs for four years, so he's confident this effect, which will last for about 30 seconds, will happen.
“This mural's site-specific,” he says. “I mirror what I see out there. It's not uncommon for me to be up there, and have someone shout my name driving by or walking by. I think I'm powered by that. It means so much more to other people. It's bigger than just me painting it. I might be painting it, but I'm really the vehicle for a larger canon. To be able to contribute to that, and make my own mark amongst the towers, is pretty exciting.”
Vargas says it's no coincidence that he grew up on City View Avenue in Boyle Heights. His mother worked at Clifton's, another downtown institution, and introduced him to the area.
“From my stoop, I had a clear sight line of the city,” he says. “Because of that, I was always destined to draw big or to dream big.”