End is near for some LA freeway murals due to graffiti

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Rob Fahey/Flickr (Creative Commons licensed)

Los Angeles Marathon freeway mural, which can be seen near downtown L.A. near the L.A. Convention Center. (Taken May 9, 2006.)

After years of graffiti tagging and futile restoration attempts, some observers say the end is near for dozens of Los Angeles’ once-glorious freeway murals.

Caltrans, the state agency that owns L.A.’s 70 freeway murals, first allowed artists to paint freeway walls for the 1984 Olympics in L.A. Art conservator Donna Williams remembers how those images transformed her commute. "It was always a pleasure to come to certain parts of the freeway and see the murals that you loved. Some you liked, some you didn’t like so much. They were there. And like all art, it was evocative," Williams said.

Professional artists painted scenes of cars, kids and outer space. About 15 years ago taggers began to target the murals. When the economy boomed, the state set aside more than $1.5 million to restore about a dozen freeway murals in L.A.

Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler said taggers returned, and that’s why his agency has launched, on a pilot basis, the Mobile Mural Restoration Project. "After spending so many hours and days and several thousand if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair these, still vandals again attack and defaced these murals," he said.

The program involves painting murals over and replacing them with much smaller reproductions of the same art on a vinyl banner. The first artist to sign off on this plan is John Wehrle. In 1983 he painted the 207-foot long mural “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” along the 101 Freeway in Downtown L.A.

Part of him wishes he hadn’t agreed to the fix. "It’s like a going to a funeral, embalming in a sense. Culturally, I’d almost rather see it, you know, completely gone," Wehrle said.

By the time Caltrans painted over Wehrle’s mural, layers of graffiti covered the planets. The agency couldn’t remove some of the tags.

Conservator Donna Williams said Caltrans is partly to blame for their deterioration because the agency didn’t set aside enough money to maintain them. "I don’t believe in exposing people to defaced art." She and other art advocates recommended that Caltrans spend more after a survey and planned restoration of the murals about a decade ago. "The higher-ups at Caltrans have made it quite clear during the survey phase and the treatment phase that they don’t want to take care of public art."

A Caltrans spokesman said freeway graffiti removal is an expensive process that can expose its crews to danger. He said the agency can paint over the murals if artists don’t maintain them. That’s what’s happened – without the artists’ permission – to at least half a dozen freeway murals.

Muralist Frank Romero sued Caltrans for painting over his mural. Taggers have heavily defaced Kent Twitchell’s freeway walls, but he won’t give up on them. "I’m not one who likes to have vandals with spray cans dictate the culture of a city," Twitchell said.

Several years ago he painstakingly restored his L.A. marathon mural near L.A. International Airport and moved it to a freeway wall near Los Feliz. Now, with private grants he’s working on that one – again – and on others.

John Wehrle, who’s still busy climbing mural scaffolds in the Bay Area, said he’s let go of the galactic scene he painted for the 1984 Summer Olympics. "There are historical preservation acts for architecture and perhaps for some murals, but also on the other hand, maybe it’s lived its life and something else should take its place," he said.

Art advocates hold out hope that these and future freeway murals will boost civic pride again someday. They say the trouble is that public officials seem more than ready to relinquish L.A.’s title of mural capital of the world.

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