Art or Vandalsim? Arroyo Seco Mural Disappearances Spark Debate

Ξ November 6th, 2007 | → 3 Comments | ∇ 90042, Highland Park, Press |

While sitting in my office, Googling “Highland Park Los Angeles Gentrification”, vaguely hoping I would find evidence I could sell my little one bedroom for a ridiculous profit to a conceptual artist and move into a bigger space (still in Northeast of course), I ran across a few fellow bloggers who had noticed some disturbing news in the nearby Arroyo Seco. Apparently, Friends of the Los Angeles River put on their “Meeting of Styles L.A.” event at which several well known graffiti artists were cleared to paint on the dapper grey walls of the Arroyo Seco. By almost all accounts, the event was a success both communally and artistically. See a better summary of the events than I can provide here:

However, one detractor to the event was Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina who apparently objected publicly to the subject matter of a few of the murals. A few days later, much of the art had been painted over in the ubiquitous battleship grey that the city plasters over all graffiti. Anecdotally, it’s pretty hard to imagine this was some local activist who took it upon himself to paint over thousands of square feet of murals. (See a more detailed article here:

I sent an email to Mrs. Molina’s office that she has not yet responded to (though in other articles, her office has roundly denied having anything to do with eliminating the paintings). However, Rogelio Rodriguez, from District 1 City Councilman Ed Reyes’ office, responded promptly to my inquiry on this matter denying any knowledge of who was responsible for the murals’ elimination. Rodriguez wrote in part, “we have a bourgeoning Arts and Cultural community in Highland Park” and wryly continued that “Councilman Reyes understands quite clearly the intent of the organization [Friends of the LA River] to prevent unproductive coloration, for lack of better diction”. Most important to this issue is that the Arroyo Seco falls under county jurisdiction and would therefore be Mrs. Molina’s responsibility.

The loss of these murals is tragic but opens the door to an interesting debate. What is art and who are the vandals? Someone (the county?) clearly feels that anything spray painted on public property is vandalism. Ironically however, since most of these murals had permits, painting over them is in itself an act of vandalism. It’s a shame that while the City and County of Los Angeles are attempting to beautify the Los Angeles River, it’s tributaries (one of which is the Arroyo Seco), and their surrounding neighborhoods, they would rather see a long grey scar run through the area than a neighborhood canvas covered in a style of art they don’t like (but much of the community does).

I’m not sure that I even know exactly where I draw the line between vandalism and art. Murals in the parking lots on the south side of Figueroa in Highland Park clearly have artistic value. Most people, including myself, would argue that simple tagging, whether gang related or otherwise, has little to none. My problem with tagging is its omnipresence in the neighborhood, the lack of self control and class that most taggers reflect in choosing what to deface, and the gang connection that some of it has. Certainly spray painting your name on a library, someone’s house, or a church is inappropriate, yet I’ve seen all of these in Northeast. Tagging private homes and businesses costs hardworking men and women thousands of dollars a year to clean up. And what about carving or painting ones moniker into glass? How can these neighborhoods be expected to thrive if businessmen and homeowners have to spend their money replacing defaced property instead of improving their homes and businesses? Does anyone reading this believe in gang tagging as an art form? I see it as merely a form of intimidation and territorial marking. What about tagging on previously existing murals? It seems both lazy and cowardly to appropriate someone else’s work and use it as a way to draw attention to yourself. That said, I actually enjoy the occasional stylized, albeit illegal, graffiti art that occasionally finds itself in hidden corners of the city where the artist has the time and seclusion to complete something more complicated than a barely legible gang moniker. And as much as I hate to admit it, I understand the simple guilty pleasure in seeing your name in writing. (Who didn’t love writing their name in wet concrete as a kid?)

I could rant on, but the point would be lost (if it isn’t already). Why not make the blighted Arroyo Seco and LA River an area to let graf artists do their thing? It can’t look any worse than the trash choked, trickle of a cement stream it currently is. Not only could it beautify the waterway, but it is essentially a victimless crime. The city and county should focus their limited resources on fighting the forms of vandalism that harm a community. Still, even I enjoy the occasional bit of streetside hard work. After all, if I wanted to live in Bel Air, I would have bought there. Right?


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