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50 Years In LA: A Gallery Amidst Gridlock

by Emily Hummel @hummeline /

If one looks around, it's sometimes hard to tell that Los Angeles has hosted two Olympic games. There are no abandoned bobsled tracks, no half-drained swimming pools-the infrastructure has been absorbed into the city, with only the Coliseum (originally built for a failed bid at the 1924 games) and Robert Graham's Olympic Gateway as the seemingly visible remnants.

What we also have, are the murals.

Those who lived in Los Angeles during and after the 1984 Olympic Games likely has strong memories of fleeting colors (or prolonged glances, depending on traffic) out of the corner of their eyes as they drove along the 101 and the 110.

The idea was muralist Alonzo Davis's, who took Robert Fizpatrick, director of the Olympics Arts Festival, on a tour of Angeleno murals to convince him of not only the legitimacy of the form, but its specific ties to Los Angeles immigrant communities.

"This is an art form that came alive in Los Angeles. It came from a community on from the peripheral and it was accessible." -Robert Fitzpatrick

This mural culture, such as it was, had its roots in the WPA murals of the 1930s, but grew up in East LA in particular, coming into its own alongside the rising Chicano rights movement in the 1970s. This eventually led to the "mural renaissance" gaining even more traction, and flourishing across the city.

"We were drawn to put art in places where people wouldn't necessarily expect to find it. There was a counter-narrative where people in the quote art world didn't consider it fine art." -Richard Wyatt

The freeways, however, were a new location for the muralists. Davis himself had been experimenting with the mural format, wanting to create work "understood on one level by motorists speeding past, and on a deeper level by those who encountered it multiple times," and the argument was made that what were the freeways but "connective tissue" of Los Angeles-and therefore the perfect canvas.

This was not without controversy. Julia Brown, then-senior curator at MOCA, argued that "the murals generally do not explore the potential of art when seen in motion." Judy Baca, one of the muralists, went a step further, arguing the freeways were "no man's land" and "not a place to get a community to support us," though she later relented.

As a counterpoint, Fitzpatrick pointed out a fact of life to which many Angelenos are familiar: speeding through freeways, especially downtown, is the exception rather than the rule. "I just spent 25 minutes on the last half-mile of freeway," he said. "For most people, the murals are a moment of release and relief."

Eventually 10 murals were commissioned from 10 different artists, all of whom had created at least two murals in the Los Angeles area: Willie Herrón III, Richard Wyatt, Kent Twitchell, Glenna Avila, Frank Romero, John Wehrle, Judy Baca, Roderick Sykes, Alonzo Davis, and Terry Schoonhoven. The murals were all placed on freeways around Downtown and leading to the Coliseum, Los Angeles's version of the sculptural promenades leading to ancient stadia in Greece.

The murals themselves are a range of styles, as each artist explored different aspects of Los Angeles and the Games. Frank Romero focused on the car culture of Los Angeles, Judy Baca chose to focus on female athletes at the games, while Glenna Avila chose her theme based on the mural's proximity to the now-defunct Children's Museum of Los Angeles.

"The thing is when you are an artist who works on the street, it's a given it won't last forever. And that's…how we lost the murals, they were not funded for maintenance." -Glenna Avila

In the years following the Games, the murals did not fare so well. Years of freeway maintenance, vandalism, and sun exposure did a number of all of the Olympic murals. By 2007, most had been put into "hibernation," a term which Caltrans uses to describe covering them with a specially-designed gray paint that could be removed at a later date, once funds were available to restore them.

Three, however, were beyond repair: Wyatt's James and Spectators, Sykes's Unity, and Davis's Eye on 84 were all either damaged during later construction, or so weathered to render restoration impossible.

The rest, however, could be restored. With the help of the Mural Conservatory of Los Angeles and the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC)'s Mural Rescue Program, the remaining seven murals were restored, most in time for the 40th anniversary of the Olympics in 2014.

One of the methods used involves spraying on a solution which causes a chemical reaction in the latex graffiti paint, causing it to bubble away from the underlying mural. The bubbling paint can then be power-washed away, revealing the art beneath. Additional touch-ups can be done by hand, and some of the muralists, like Willie Herrón and Judy Baca, have led the restoration of their own murals.

Watch: Youtube Video

Watch: Youtube Video

Now, the Olympics murals are back, and in 2013, the city reversed a decade-long ban on new murals, but the overall state of murals remains unresolved. In the few years since the ban was lifted, the controversial whitewashing of murals continued, but things are looking brighter. More murals are being registered with the city (though red tape still pervades the process), and money is being set aside for conservation and restoration of current murals as well as creation of new work.

Here's to the legacy of a true Angeleno art form. One can only hope that we can reclaim our title-and legacy-as "Mural Capital of the World" as we move further into the 21st century.

For L.A. artists to be taken seriously on a worldwide basis, we have to protect our work and it has to be up for decades, not just in a book. It's about students being able to go and see your work 40 years later - to stand in front of it, live, and look at your brush strokes." -Willie Herrón

If you're curious to take a peek at the Olympics murals-or delve deeper into Los Angeles's mural legacy, the Mural Conservancy does regular tours, and the LA Conservancy has a walking tour of the Arts District that includes some murals (though not the Olympic ones). If you'd like to find them yourself, you can use this map to find those still extant-or, you can just drive along the 101 and 110 until you spot them.

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