Freeway murals in downtown LA are really a study on the subject of the battle against graffiti and tagging vandals. Caltrans (the highway maintenance authority in the State of California) is required by law to keep graffiti under control and off walls… even if those walls have really great murals on them. The Mural Conservancy of LA is the main voice lobbying to protect and save the outdoor mural creations of artists in LA. So, you would think these two entities would be at odds.
But I attended a meeting with representatives from both of these two organizations on Thurs. April 28th, 2011 as an art conservation consultant and expert with the purpose of figuring out the problems associated with preservation, conservation and restoration of these great works of art in the form of murals along the sides of freeways. This was not a run of the mill meeting, in a corporate office with suits.
We met, as you might guess, in the office of Caltrans: behind fluorescent orange cones, closing down a traffic lane in downtown LA at 8 am in the morning. They are the “gods of the highways.” We got a “do or die” safety orientation, then followed dutifully to an on-ramp by an overpass with obliterated murals by the best and most famous outdoor mural artist in Los Angeles, Kent Twitchell. We parked behind the same orange cones where you will NEVER get to park in your whole life and took the short walk to stand in front of the murals. There we did tests, measured the dimensions, took pictures and video and discussed the past efforts by several well meaning organizations over the years. We did this procedure for 4 murals in different locations, one completed painted out and no longer visible.
The purpose of this meeting was agreed upon ahead of time to be a cooperative synergistic effort to put heads together and figure out how to show off the murals and keep the graffiti off them… a problem that had been wrestled with for decades… BUT, an old problem that may have “fresh legs.”
There have been some new developments and new techniques in graffiti removal and mural protection. There was encouraging dialog and a commitment to discuss, cooperate, test the procedures and make progress with this insidious problem. “Fired up” would be a good way to express the expectations of further efforts and expected positive results. We’ll keep you informed. It shouldn’t be too long into the future. We’ll post very cool, compelling photos and some very unique video on several websites.
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Scott M. Haskins, Fine Art Conservator
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For videos of another interesting mural project, click on this link: www.fineartconservationlab.com/la-produce-market-murals
Exhibition: “Art in the Streets”
Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles
missed a BIG opportunity to be a “guiding light institution.”
On a related subject, let me comment on an interesting controversial art exhibit that shows off or applauds street art or aerosol art but fails to separate from the work of these artists the vandalism of graffiti. There’s a huge difference and the artists themselves know the difference. This is not a question of taste or liking one style of art better than another. Even if the lettering of graffiti is decorative, that doesn’t make it art any more than calligraphy is generally considered art. But defacing someone else’s property does make it vandalism.
As an art conservator who works on murals, I deal with the damage caused by “graffiti vandals” who think they have rights or freedom of expression to vandalize, deface private and public property, ruin true works of art that have a legal right to exist and whose defacements represent and promote the dregs of society. The only justification that these outlaws have is the same mentality that justifies anarchy.
HOWEVER, the show at MOCA shows off the art skills of street art that could be compared to the NBA compared to the regular “street art” and scribbled comments on walls you will see around town. Some of these artists are true geniuses and their art is amazing. There is a place for it and it beautifies and stimulates a community.
The MOCA show, while making a small obligatory mention of tagging being bad, there was not a “stand taken” and a line drawn between tagging and quality street art. There was no teaching. In the interest of misguided freedom of expression, they missed the boat on educating the public and did not express both sides of the difficult and insidious debate/problem.
As much as I like street art or aerosol art in the right locations, I think its pretty obvious that graffiti tagging with monikers is vandalism.
The Mural Conservancy of LA Executive Director, Isabel Rojas-Williams told me they connect with many past teenage taggers who are now grown up, with families, jobs etc. They almost universally express regret for having defaced and vandalized… especially the works of public art by the great muralists.
A teenage brain fart that causes damage to private and private property and public art is wrong, bad for society, bad for the soul and a counterfeit imitation masquerading as (in their minds) art in the streets. “Art in the Streets” at the Museum of Contemporary Art missed making that distinction in a clear and public way.
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Scott M. Haskins, Conservator of Fine Art
Thanks for sharing your nice experience with us. Really awesome article about the freeway murals. I’m always wondering what happens when they get tagged and painted out.
I truly find this an interesting subject as I look at these murals everyday as I drive the LA freeways. Its been a really sad thing for me to see the really great murals tagged… then painted out. I never looked at this subject in this manner. Keep us all updated!