About the project

Through 1998-2002, I took pictures of about 1000 Los Angeles murals and put them up at a Web site. It was a hobby that became an art archive.

I moved to Los Angeles in late 1998 because my wife got a job there as minister of a downtown church. Since I worked from home, I thought that moving would be no problem for me. I was wrong. I grew up on the East Coast, and L.A. appeared to be a centerless, smog-filled, undistinguished endless strip mall divided between people struggling to survive and people struggling to one-up each other. I realized that I was going to have to find something good about the place fast.

What I quickly found was murals. They are the only physical part of Los Angeles that makes sense; the only area where human beings try to take back part of their environment from featureless sprawl and advertising blare. The Los Angeles environment, if nothing else, is at least rich in sun and blank walls. I quickly noticed that murals were beautiful, meaningful, and a set of visual landmarks that could help me learn L.A.

So I bought a cheap point-and-shoot camera, got a copy of Robin Dunitz' book Street Gallery, and started to take a couple of hours at a time to drive around the city and take pictures of murals. I suppose that it started as a sort of birder's impulse; if I was going to look at murals, why not take pictures of them? But my work for environmental groups left me with skills for setting up database-backed Web sites, and I thought it would be good to make a Web site for the pictures.

The search took me to every part of Los Angeles county, including places that I undoubtedly would never have otherwise visited. Occasionally I'd spook drug dealers with my camera, but more often I'd meet people who really cared about the murals in their neighborhoods, and I started to understand a little about muralism and graffiti art. Categorizing pictures and organizing information for the Web site turned out to take a lot of time, but by then I'd realized how often murals are destroyed by sun, tagging, or change in building ownership, and viewed the site as an archival art history project.

In early 2002, circumstances changed for my family, and we left Los Angeles, moving back to the east coast. By then I had taken about 3,500 pictures of about 1,000 murals. They remain my best memories of the city.


The neighborhoods of Los Angeles

The process of discovering murals in Los Angeles is a process of discovering neighborhoods. There is a thin layer of murals that are about the same everywhere - murals at post offices and libraries, murals in schools, the occasional import brought in by city-wide public funding. But otherwise, murals are affected by what the neighborhood wants. Los Angeles is separated into fairly well defined areas by culture, race, and class as well as by geography, and I could probably see where I was in the city without a map just by seeing the mural styles.

Prolific individual artists tend to have their murals concentrated in a single neighborhood, perhaps because they live there or because local sponsors see their work and decide that they want murals in the same style. Or perhaps the artist gets to know the local officials who sponsor some murals. For whatever reason, some artists are attracted to a neighborhood that supports their particular type of work, and they in turn help to define the visual style of their area.

Neighborhoods also affect murals because of the building mix. Murals require walls that are larger than house size - few single family houses have owners brave enough to defy convention - but smaller than the largest buildings, which either have an image to protect, or rent their space out to large mega-murals that are billboards in all but name. So whether an area is a hot site for murals depends partially on how many mid-sized businesses there are.

So I'll write about my mural experiences by neighborhood, though since this is Los Angeles, they will be very large neighborhoods, more like areas of the county. I've taken the geographic boundaries for them from Robin Dunitz' book Street Gallery, which divides Los Angeles county into 22 sections. For many neighborhoods, I'll try to name a couple of artists that exemplify the local style. No insult is intended to these artists by characterizing their art as helping to define the visual style of a neighborhood; they are perfectly capable of doing a great mural anywhere, and most do in fact have murals spread throughout the county. Similarly, no insult is intended to artists that I don't mention -- there are too many good mural artists in L.A. to mention them all.


Downtown has a lot of murals, but far too many of them are owned by large commercial entities that don't want you taking pictures of them, either because they want to control access to their site or because they want to defend copyright. And the murals that decorate corporations are often very bland. There are some good murals on public buildings, but they have security problems as well - in one incident after 9/11, I was followed by security guards for blocks for having my camera out as I approached what turned out to be a courthouse.

The few exceptions to the generally dismal mural scene downtown were a few local medium-size businesses, like the Victor Clothes building, some works by well-known artists like Kent Twitchell, and some very good graffiti work on more or less abandoned buildings to the east. But downtown Los Angeles was famously designed to repel people from just wandering around, and it shows in the murals there.

South L.A. (including Vernon to Compton)

South-central Los Angeles is, surprisingly, a bad area for murals. At the time I lived in L.A., this was traditionally the African-American part of town, and muralism isn't part of African-American culture in the same way as it is part of Mexican-American culture. There is something of a tradition of 1960s-1970s style inner city protest art, but most of that looks very dated now. The most common type of mural in south-central L.A. is the condescending style seemingly designed to tell people that everything would be fine if they could just act white and middle-class. Or, as a reporter whose name I've forgotten put it in a quote that I've probably mangled about a neighborhood in D.C.: "This neighborhood has too many check cashing places, too many liquor stores, and too many murals in bright, primary colors showing people engaged in purposeful activity."

The people that I met in south L.A. seemed indifferent to their murals in general. Or sometimes even actively hostile; I was told off in no uncertain terms by a guy who pointed out that the mural I was taking pictures of wasn't painted by a local, and who asked why that job hadn't gone to a black person.

Of course, there are a few good local muralists even so. Eliott Pinkney's work stands out in particular.

East L.A. (including Highland Park)

East L.A. is the Mecca for murals, both for the art quality and the people in the neighborhood who like them. Time after time chance-met people - seniors out strolling, housewives shopping, teens hanging out - would stop and talk to me when they realized that I was taking pictures of a mural. They'd be knowledgeable, too, often knowing who painted the mural and what it symbolized. A handful of times I was approached by people who claimed to be part of the crew that painted the mural. Twice I met established artists with their own studios in the neighborhood.

Which is another way of saying that the Mexican muralism tradition is still vital in East L.A. Everyone I met there thought of murals as art and had no problem understanding why someone would be interested in them. In terms of art quality, the murals here are on average the best in the city, sophisticated both in technique and in meaning. There is some very good work from the graduates of the local art schools, in the graffiti style, and even as commercial art for hire on the many small businesses.

There are too many individually good artists to mention who paint in this area, but the East Los Streetscapers (and the individual work of group members David Botello, Wayne Healy, George Yepes, and Paul Botello) stand out, as does the work of Willie Herron III.

West L.A. (including Santa Monica and Venice)

West L.A. is a wasteland for murals until you approach the beach - too many rich, residential neighborhoods. Santa Monica and Venice have a lot of celebratory, vaguely psychedelic-style work in keeping with the carefully cultivated image of Venice Beach and the 3rd St. Promenade. Some of the fantasies are particularly well done. But overall, there is something about the commercial murals of the beach areas that seems to work a little too hard, to be too eager to assure you that you're having fun. And of the non-commercial murals, too many are about the importation of a narrow politics that has no real connection to local feeling.

There are some interesting murals by Rip Cronk and Arthur Mortimer among others.


The mid-city area, generally known as the Wilshire district, is west of downtown, north of south-central L.A., east of west L.A., and south of Hollywood. It's where I lived when I was in L.A., and I have a special affection for it. It has a diverse and vital set of murals because it's influenced by every area of the city. Because of the population density and the ever-changing ethnic makeup of the local neighborhoods, no mural can be completely at home there, all of them are in some sense among strangers. Perhaps because of the many ethnic boundaries, this area also has some of the best gang murals. There are a large number of murals of all sorts here because there are a lot of more-or-less run-down commercial areas.

Mid-city varies widely in affluence from the west to the east of the area, with matching changes in mural styles. In the parts closest to downtown, be careful when checking out murals -- the police may think you're there to buy drugs.

There are many good muralists in the area, but one of my favorites was Hector Ponce, who did a lot without much apparent public funding.


Hollywood is, of course, the place for vapid murals about movie stars. But it also has some of the best graffiti style work in the city. There are specific areas, like the alleys to the north and south of Melrose Ave., that are showcases for many people's best pieces. Perhaps because it is Hollywood, fantasy themes dominate rather than personal or gang imagery. There is some great work by ManOne, CBS, and other individuals and crews.

Silver Lake / Echo Park

Silver Lake is an artist's community, and it has the kind of murals you'd expect; prolific, well done, perhaps a bit delicate. The area around Santa Monica Blvd achieves critical mural density with a surprising number of publicly funded murals; it's a place well worth seeing. I particularly like works by Annie Sperling-Cesano and Ernesto de la Loza.

Far south / port areas (L.A. airport, Hermosa Beach to San Pedro, Long Beach)

There's something exciting about the murals in these areas of L.A. Maybe it's being close to the ocean, but being there not to party but to work. Long Beach has a lot of good work in hybrid styles. As might be expected, nautical themes are common.

Far east L.A. (Commerce to Paramount, Whittier/La Mirada, Eastern San Gabriel Valley, Duarte/Walnut)

You'd think that these areas would be like East L.A., but they're not. They become basically suburban, with the murals few and far between, and generally of mediocre quality. However, there are a few good murals on public buildings such as libraries.

Claremont / Pomona

The Five College area has a concentration of murals, including a lot of good student work, at Pfister College.

San Fernando Valley

The Valley is a choking hell of long distances and low mural density. There is some Mexican tradition work, though often muted by the basically suburban mindset into historicism rather than a connection to current concerns. The sheer size of the Valley does means that there is a numerically large number of murals, if you can stand driving through the smog to see them.

When I was there, there was a good project by multiple artists in the NoHo area at Chandler Blvd. (near Denny Ave.) It didn't look permanent, so I'm not sure how much of it will be left years later.

Far north L.A. (Burbank / Glendale, Pasadena)

I would guess that the low mural density of these areas is what keeps their murals from cohering into a particular style. Like mid-city, the area is inflluenced by many styles, but unlike mid-city it never quite develops its own.

Other artists

There are quite a few prolific artists that I haven't mentioned above because they don't seem to be as representative of a particular area of the city. The site includes a list of them. There are undoubtedly some graffiti artists and crews who deserve more of a mention, but unfortunately I'm bad at reading their names and couldn't make most of them out.


Mural Destruction

Over the course of the slightly more than three years that I was taking pictures of murals (1999 through early 2002), I found 64 murals that had been destroyed. Some of these I realized were destroyed because they were listed in Robin Dunitz' book Street Gallery, but I couldn't find them. Some I realized were destroyed because I had taken pictures of them once and when I came back to the same area, they were gone. One or two I caught in the act of being painted over.

I never liked the idea of murals being destroyed. If you accept them as art, then your reaction is similar to how you'd react to a painting being torn up or painted over. The city agrees and has a law - enforced more in theory than in practice - that requires building owners to give the muralist a chance to rescue their mural by moving it before they paint it over, or to pay a fine.

However, a certain level of destruction may be not only unavoidable, but acceptable. After all, painters re-use canvases when they run out of money to buy new ones, and there is a large but limited supply of walls suitable for murals. The L.A. sun can strip paint right off a wall within a few years if the mural wasn't done using expensive materials to begin with. The problem is that the muralist is usually not the one to decide to paint over their old mural or the one who gets the chance to paint a new one over it.

Of the 64 destroyed murals that I found, 18 were painted over with plain paint. 12 were painted over by other murals. 12 I listed as destroyed because I couldn't find them at all; some of these may have had mistakes in the Street Gallery address. Nine were destroyed as part of a change of ownership of the building that they were on, when the new owners didn't want the mural. Eight were destroyed or misplaced when the building they were on was torn down or remodelled. Six fell to unknown causes.

During the later half of my time in L.A., a relatively new problem sprung up - tagging. Kids with spray cans used to have a code that said that you didn't tag over a "piece" (i.e. a masterpiece, a large, well-done area of graffiti art). Then the city started to get more active in painting over tags (quick scrawls) because some of them are gang markings, and kids noticed that the city often didn't paint over murals. So murals started to get preferentially tagged because that way the tags would stay up longer. Because of the increased tagging the city started to paint over murals more often, and now many of them are either completely obscured by tags or painted over. Painting over tags is apparently a multimillion dollar business in the city.

There was an unusual episode of mural destruction while I was in L.A. Someone was putting blue paint over the face of the Virgin on murals that showed the Virgin of Guadalupe. As far as I know, the person or people responsible were never caught. But the defacement eventually stopped. More than one person that I met swore to beat up whoever was doing it, so maybe that's what happened.

Both SPARC and MCLA are interested in mural preservation, and both had their own programs for protecting a certain number of murals deemed to be of high artistic quality. Usually this is done by putting a sacrificial coating of some kind of transparent polymer that can either be cleaned or peeled off on the mural. I don't know how active these programs are now.


How Many Murals Are There In Los Angeles?

I work with numbers, so it's tempting to put a few pseudo-statistics up here. There are 1,053 murals listed in the second edition of Street Gallery. I found 510 of them on my trips through the city (either took pictures or verified that they'd been destroyed). I took pictures of (or verfied the destruction of) 1,069 total murals, so a good number of the murals aren't listed in Street Gallery, either because they are graffiti pieces, because they weren't known to Robin Dunitz, or because they were painted after the book was written in the late nineties.

Given that I seemed to find about twice as many murals as were listed in Street Gallery, my best guess is that at the turn of the century Los Angeles county had about 2,000 murals - twice the number in Street Gallery. However, there are a number of complicating factors. There were some types of places that I didn't cover well at all. Schools, for instance, most decidedly do not want adults wandering around with cameras without an appointment, and I never was organized enough to make appointments, so I just avoided any murals in schools. It seems like almost every school in L.A. has a mural, so this could be a lot of them. Similarly, businesses with murals in their interiors tended to be so difficult to approach casually that I stopped looking for them.

My geographic coverage was pretty good: I don't think that I avoided any area of the city. In case anyone wants it, here is the full geographic breakdown:


Number of Murals in Street Gallery

Number of Street Gallery Murals Found

Total Number of Murals Found

East L.A./Monterey Park








San Fernando Valley




Long Beach Area




South L.A.








West L.A.




Hollywood/West Hollywood




Silver Lake/Echo Park




Santa Monica/Malibu




Vernon to Compton




Pasadena Area




Venice area




Highland Park/Northeast L.A.




Claremont/Pomona Area




Hermosa Beach to San Pedro




Burbank/Glendale Area




L.A. Airport Area




Whittier/La Mirada Area




Duarte/Walnut Area




Eastern San Gabriel Valley




Commerce to Paramount









Results of the project

I'm left with pictures of about 1,000 murals, and (which may be almost as useful) a database of their locations, artists, titles, sponsors and other information. I plan on maintaining this site as an archive. At some point, I expect to donate a copy of the pictures and database to a university so they can be preserved as part of the history of Los Angeles public art near the year 2000.

Rich Puchalsky

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