Over the last 10 years, Serrato has been inviting friends and fellow art lovers to check out his expansive collection. Artist José Lozano, whose work is displayed in Serrato’s bathroom: “Amongst the clutter, there’s a treasure there.”
Ernesto de la Loza can remember a time when he could walk down the streets of Boyle Heights and be greeted by the sight of vibrant murals. Sometimes, he’d even run into some of his own work on neighborhood walls.
“Things were different 40 years ago. I saw our community come together and paint our stories on walls,” said De la Loza, 71, who was a renowned muralist during the Chicano Pride movement in East LA in the ’60s and ’70s. “Now, all I see are new coffee shops and yoga studios. It’s not the same.”
De la Loza was behind some of the most iconic murals in the city that included work that highlighted environmental awareness and the fight for equal rights. He recalls the first mural he painted was a Mayan motif at El Sereno Park back in 1968 as a 19-year-old.
“These murals represented our struggles and our stories that weren’t being taught in history books,” De la Loza says. “That’s why I started painting, to express myself and for the past 50 years I’ve stood true to that.”
De La Loza was part of the “Golden Age of Chicano Muralism” in LA during the ’60s and ’70s. Today, the work from that era is quickly disappearing.
He takes me on a tour outside of his work office in Echo Park, a rapidly changing neighborhood in Los Angeles that was once predominantly Latino. He nods to the new art studio near his office opening soon and sighs. De la Loza says that there was once a colorful mural of the Lady of Guadalupe right next to his office but as we make a turn around the block to see it, we find white paint and graffiti covering any resemblance to the mural.
“This neighborhood had a mural on every corner and you can hold me to that,” de la Loza says with pride in his voice. “It was beautiful.”
De la Loza is right. The streets of LA did indeed have a mural on every corner, or so it sure seemed like that back then. Murals popped up everywhere in Los Angeles in the 1970s as artists took to walls to express views on political and social issues, including student uprisings and civil rights struggles.
According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, 69, a mural expert and historian, at the height of the mural movement in LA there was an estimated 2,500 murals up on city walls. Then, they started disappearing.
Due to an increase in city-wide graffiti, weather damage and neighborhood complaints, many of these historic murals began to be whitewashed across Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles was once the mural capital of the world. All over the Eastside of LA there were beautiful pieces of art that celebrated and empowered Chicano culture,” said Rojas-Williams. “There were well over 2,500 murals over the city from Boyle Height to the San Fernando Valley.”
She says that the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights was the birthplace of the Chicano mural movement. Over 90 murals once stood at low-income housing projects where some of the most well-known muralists like De la Loza and David Botello painted work there. Today, there are roughly only 50 murals there. That is due to graffiti and lack of financial funding to restore the murals.
“There was tagging all over them and that was painful to see because it was our own people behind it,” De La Loza as he looks up to the sky. “We killed the mural movement and that pains me.”
The erasure of murals in LA can be traced back to the ’90s when murals began to disappear due to tagging, damage due to weather and overall lack of maintenance. In return, the damaged murals became “eyesores” to some in the community and complaints to the city followed. Gentrification would also begin to hit Northeast LA during this period which led to a change in demographics in these neighborhoods.
“They didn’t understand the importance of these murals and what they meant to our people,” said Rojas-Williams. “That was the beginning of the end of the mural movement and then came the moratorium.”
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles essentially banned the painting of murals and enacted a moratorium on murals on private property and businesses. That period is known as the “dark age of muralism in LA”.
Los Angeles put a mural ban in place due to advertisers suing the city on 1st Amendment grounds. They argued that while their ads were banned from being placed on city walls, muralists could still create giant pieces of work. In return, city officials opted to prohibit all new murals. An individual who wanted to put up a new mural could be fined or even put in jail due to the ban.
The moratorium lasted 11 years until it was finally lifted in 2013. A new mural ordinance would also be enacted that protected artists work if ever damaged or attempted to be painted over. The rules permitted new murals in business and industrial zones as long as artists registered their projects with the city and paid a $60 application fee. But for many, the damage was already done.
During those 11 years, hundreds of pieces of art were lost due to the whitewashing of murals from the city. There was anger from the art community and historians like Rojas-Williams, who worked on lifting the ban, says the city painted over iconic murals that can never be reclaimed.
“It felt like the erasure of our culture and the city did this over a decade span losing hundreds of murals in return,” she says.
For De La Loza, when the moratorium ended it coincided with another wave of change that came to LA around 2013. Highland Park and Echo Park, both Latino enclaves for decades, saw more gentrification hit and a wave of new owners come to the community. By then, murals in those neighborhoods were long gone.
“I look around this neighborhood and it feels like we were never here,” De La Loza says as we head back to his office. “We lost more than just a piece of art, we lost our history, we lost years of hard work and more importantly we lost our presence in this city.”
Today, Los Angeles is starting to see some of that creative boom again as new murals have popped up all over the city. Yet, there is still much work to be done.
Artists in LA today have more creative freedom than ever when it comes to putting up new murals. But things aren’t as easy as just simply picking a wall and painting on it. With the addition of fees and permits and an agreement that a mural must remain up for at least two years, the new ordinance had unintended consequences. According to Rojas-Williams, many Latino muralists that she speaks to can’t afford these fees or have the time to acquire permits. De La Loza agrees.
“The ordinance helped but in reality it helped the more affluent and outsider community that was coming into the city,” he says. “It’s obvious when you look around the neighborhood whose art is up. It’s nice art but it’s not ours.”
We return to his office and as we say our goodbyes, he shows me one last thing. It’s a book about murals with his artwork on the front cover. He tells me his niece in college was required to read it as part of her college art history class.
“She told me when she saw the book cover she immediately knew it was my work,” De La Loza says as he wipes a tear. “Knowing that a new generation is getting to know about that history and that period gives me hope that one day it’ll be back.
It’s hard to miss the colorful 70-foot apartment complexes along Broadway between Chinatown and El Pueblo near downtown Los Angeles. But it’s even harder to not notice four new vibrant murals, drawn by four prominent local Mexican-American artists — Judithe Hernández, José Lozano, Miguel Angel Reyes, and Barbara Carrasco. On Sep.12, the murals and the new LA Plaza Village mixed-use complex near the El Pueblo historic district were both unveiled.
LA Plaza Village is set to usher in a new wave of Latino culture and empowerment in the historic El Pueblo District.
LA Plaza Village is a 3.7-acre, $160 million project developed by LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes (LA Plaza) that marks a new era in the historic area. The project broke ground back in 2016 and after years of anticipation, it is now open for residents. The two-building complex includes 355 apartments, including 70 affordable housing units, with 43,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space. The entire project helped employ more than 3,400 employees, including almost 1,000 local area workers, and 671 apprentices, including 218 local apprentices.
“There has been tremendous growth throughout the rest of Downtown but this area was neglected,” John Echeveste, CEO of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, said at the opening. “This is going to bring new life to the area. We have a good mix of residents that are living here, we’re going to be shopping locally on Olvera Street and attending programs at the museum. It helps to just revive this entire El Pueblo area.”
The housing development is just the surface of what is expected to be a cultural hub of Latino history and food with the opening of LA Plaza Cocina, a museum and educational kitchen dedicated to Mexican cuisine. The museum is slated to open next Spring and will usher in a mini-renaissance of Latino culture in the area.
“LA Plaza Village marks the fulfillment of another major milestone for our organization that began in 2011 with the opening of our museum and will continue with the opening of our Historic Paseo Walkway in 2019 and Cocina in 2020. These projects have helped spark a new cultural and economic revival in the historic heart of downtown,” Lupe de la Cruz III, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes Board Chair, said at the opening.
The heart of the project includes the work of four local muralists who have all painted original pieces of work.
All four of the muralists worked on the pieces over the last year, each putting their own special touch on each of their works. The murals are located on Broadway between the Hollywood Freeway and Cesar Chavez Avenue.
“LA Plaza Village will make a lasting and impactful statement to the historic roots and presence of Latinos in Los Angeles through the works of these four talented artists. The artists were selected based on their creative ability to capture the essence of the Latino experience in Los Angeles, and we believe their art will distinguish LA Plaza Village as one of the most captivating and inspiring developments in downtown. Much as El Pueblo pays tribute to our proud history, LA Plaza Village recognizes our bright and promising future,” John Echeveste, CEO, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, said at the press conference.
Judithe Hernández’s La Nueva Reina
Judithe Hernández, an acclaimed LA-based muralist who has been an active artist since the 1970s, is behind the tallest mural. Her 70-foot-tall piece titled “La Nueva Reina” is inspired by a mural she drew during the 1981 Los Angeles bicentennial celebration. Coincidentally, Herández’s new mural is on the site of her previous mural that she painted back in 1981.
“As a powerful cultural and historical image, the city’s patroness has for too long been absent from the city’s heart and visual experience. Therefore, it seemed fitting to honor her again. My challenge was to reinterpret La Reina as the embodiment of an ancient cultural past reaching out to embrace the unfolding future in the 21st century,” Hernandez told LA Plaza.
Jose Lozano’s Aliso Dreams
On the opposite corner of the street is Jose Lozano’s “Aliso Dreams” which stands at five stories tall. Lozano is a children’s book illustrator and has done various art projects in the LA area. The mural pays homage to the Aliso trees that once stood behind Olvera Street and the community that it brought together.
Miguel Angel Reyes’s Family Tree
At the edge of Broadway is “Family Tree” by Miguel Angel Reyes which rests at the development’s Broadway parking garage entrance. This work pays tribute to Miguel’s family and other countless immigrant families who have all made sacrifices coming to the U.S.
“I hope this mural inspires everyone to pursue an education and to put in the hours to reach their goals. An Education can be a difficult road which does not guarantee results,” Reyes told LA Plaza. ” I hope that those who take the academic road are able to stay with it and not give up your dream. Make your parents, your community and yourself proud and create a role model for future generations.”
Barbara Carrasco’s Movimiento
Barbara Carrasco’s “Movimiento” is located at the future headquarters of The Cesar Chavez Foundation. The vibrant mural represents a part of Carrasco’s life in which she played a role working hand in hand with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers. She would create mural banners and other pieces of art to help with public events. The mural includes a portrait of Cesar Chavez and other members of the Chicano Movement during the 1960s.