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Amid the ‘Whitewashing’ of Murals in Highland Park, These L.A. Graffiti OGs Fight Back

12:53 PM PDT on August 14, 2020

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he east-facing wall behind Figueroa Theater between Avenue 56 and Avenue 57 in Highland Park remains as one of the last standing bastions of the neighborhood’s historically Latino roots. 

It bears a freshly spraypainted image of Emiliano Zapata, Mexican war hero, in skeleton form. His portrait stands firm in an asymmetrical frame, which gives the haunting illusion that he is staring at you from a portal as you walk or drive by.

Behind Zapata is Pasadena’s Suicide Bridge under a full moon and then a silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains. Next to his mural are two-story-high graffiti bombs by VELA (CBS, GW), EKOH (STK, GW), AEYE (STK, ZNC), RYSR (OG STK), SRAM (CBS, WAI), REDS (AE, WAI),  PRESUR (ZNC), and SENSAE. 

Zapata, by MURAL ONE. Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. Taco.

“Highland Park is not just fucking hipsters,” MURAL ONE, the artist who drew the Zapata mural, tells L.A. Taco the day after putting his finishing touches. He is known in L.A.’s streets as a graffiti OG from the 80s who pioneered illustrations of characters as a form of graffiti. His street trademark is a soldier, though in this case, that soldier is a variation of Zapata. He is taking photos of his art to make sure he gets a good shot for his archives—in case it gets buffed or vandalized by local gangs who typically do not like artists like MURAL painting on their barrio’s walls. 

The mural faces a community garden. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.
MURAL ONE finishes his Zapata mural. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

“This soldier is both a memorial for all the souls who have lost their lives not just fighting in the military but in the street warfare of Los Angeles,” Mural continues. “It’s for victims of cold blood, whether you were protecting your family or your barrio. But at the same time, this soldier is a signal of strength to fight forward.”

SENSAE buffing the older mural to get the wall ready for its "face lift." Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. Taco.

“I know HLP is undergoing gentrification, but I have seen friends get killed here,” MURAL says, getting a little emotional and taking a pause during the interview. “Oh, you like Highland Park’s culture? I used to come here in the 90s, and you used to get your shoes and chains jacked on Figueroa; my view is different.” Born in San Pedro and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, when MURAL was asked to participate, he did not take the privilege lightly. 

SENSAE finishing up his bomb that took three days to craft. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.
SENSAE finishing up his bomb that took three days to craft. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

He was one of nine street artists invited by SENSAE, the graffiti veterano who also was raised in the San Gabriel Valley and now resides in nearby City Terrace. SENSAE has had permission to paint on this famed wall for a decade. He is one of the artists who painted the original mural on the wall in 2010. He knew it was time to redo the art since Highland Park was changing, and when another younger, graffiti crew recently did a haphazard job and painted over his old mural, he knew it was time to call his homies and do the wall justice. 

Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.
Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. Taco.
Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.
Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

“Zapata is in the center of this mural because anybody of Latino descent will know who the character is right away. Gangbangers? They’ll love it too. Hipsters? Well, they’ll appreciate it,” SENSAE tells L.A. Taco. His only requirement for the rest of his graffiti writers was to work in various shades of blue. “Blue looks good on the eye, on the camera, and if you’ve been to penitentiary, you know that Southern California is Dodger blue. I’m not going to put a bunch of red on here.” 

“Highland Park is a strong neighborhood, and while you may be able to price out its residents, you will never be able to get rid of our history.”  

Two weeks ago, he was painting over the haphazard mural on a 90-degree day in the afternoon. “I bought this paint myself, all those kids did was light a fire under my ass so I can finally come back and do the facelift,” he tells L.A. Taco. It took all nine graffiti writers three days working from dusk to dawn to complete the wall. 

The walls in the adjacent public parking lots used to be covered by graffiti. Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

In 2020, this piece is one of the last murals left in Highland Park. A few years ago, both public parking lots adjacent to this wall also used to be covered in colorful graffiti. Still, as the desirable neighborhood continues to be targeted by developers and businesses looking to bank on the neighborhood’s new affluent residents, both those parking lot walls have been buffed. Or what many old school residents of the community call “whitewashed.” 

Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.
Photo by Erwin Recinos for L.A. Taco.

An article on The Guardian published earlier this year details the “Mural War” that has been going on in Highland Park since 2017. That was a pivotal moment in Highland Park’s shifting demographic and when a radical community art group named Restorative Justice for the Arts accused city officials in Highland Park to be colluding with incoming property speculators to “destroy the neighborhood” of its Latino past. An accusation that proved to be right after the independent community watchdog investigative reporting site uncovered official emails exchanged between the City and local businesses deeming older murals with depictions of Aztec motifs to be “illegal.” These emails allowed property developers to buff murals despite them protected by a citywide ordinance put into effect in 2003 that protects “vintage” and “original” murals.    

Since then, murals in the popular neighborhood has been a sensitive subject. Last year when community members found out that the owner of a building that housed an iconic Aztec-inspired wall on Avenue 61 and Figueroa Street had plans to erase the mural, more than 100 people showed up to protest. On a Sunday afternoon, Aztec dancers were occupying the middle of the street, blocking traffic, and there were many impassioned speeches about the importance of preserving Highland Park’s cultural heritage. 

After the demonstration, the property owner did not go forward with the erasure. 

In 2018, Sol Luongo, a longtime resident of Highland Park and bartender at La Cuevita down the street, was hired to do a mural on the wall of Avenue 59 and Figueroa. Originally from South America, Sol included several Highland Park landmarks in her mural. Despite her being from Latin America and the painting including critical cultural elements from the neighborhood such as Oaxacan alebrijes, Highland Park’s historic typewriter repair shop (priced out last year), and Mr. T.’s Bowl (the divey post-punk bowling alley that was remodeled into a steampunk-themed bowling alley with cocktails and Neopolitan-style pizza in 2016), her art was still deemed to be done by a “gentrifier.” She faced threats and feared for her safety. It still stands today but has been defaced innumerable times.  

Photo by Javier Cabral for L.A. Taco.

The OG graffiti artists behind Figueroa Theater hope that their cultural-inspired art will serve as a reminder of the neighborhood’s historically working-class roots to all the new residents moving in. As of August 2020 and amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, the average price of a home in the area is $935,000, according to Redfin. Last week, a new sushi restaurant offering Wagyu handrolls for $9 opened its doors.     

As concerned residents of Avenue 56, full of million-dollar homes, drove and walked by asking what the group of artists was doing, MURAL defused: “Oh, don't worry, this is like a potluck but instead of bringing food, everyone here brings different art.”  

When asked about if gentrification played any role in his inspiration for his art, MURAL responds. “Highland Park is a strong neighborhood, and while you may be able to price out its residents, you will never be able to get rid of our history.”  

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