The mural, “Light from Darkness,” outside the M-bar on First Street in Boyle Heights, is the first one Fabian Debora has painted in more than 10 years.
The mural depicts a modern-day Virgin Mary with a rose tattoo that represents love, friendship, strength, beauty and roots. Debora says his goal was to acknowledge the female and erase the stereotype placed on the “home girl” through identity, culture and religion.
Like many Los Angeles muralists, the artist spent the last decade mastering his craft in a studio after a 2002 law banned outdoor murals and billboards.
Since then, many murals in Los Angeles have been whitewashed, or painted over. Muralists could be arrested and face jail time or big fines.
But in 2013, the City Council reversed the ban and legalized murals. Many hoped that Los Angeles would once again emerge as the “mural capital of the world” and that Boyle Heights would regain its role as a showcase of political murals.
“Boyle Heights gave birth to the Chicano mural movement,” says Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
Murals lose political meaning
While many public art works are showing up in a newly gentrified downtown L.A., there aren’t many new murals in Boyle Heights. Since the city legalized murals, there have been 44 mural applications citywide (as of March 10, 2014), according to the Department of Cultural Affairs. Twenty-two are in downtown Los Angeles; none in Boyle Heights.
Some local artists are troubled by the lack of new artwork in the community and question whether murals have the same political importance and messages they once had.
“The whole thing with what’s happening downtown with all the new paintings, they call it street art, ” says muralist Raul Gonzales, 36.
“It’s corporate,” says Joe Rodríguez, 64, and founder of the Mechicano Arts Center.
Councilmember Jose Huizar, who represents downtown and Boyle Heights, played an instrumental role in lifting the mural ban. He sees no special favoritism for downtown. His office is working to preserve a lot of the older murals in Boyle Heights and recently allocated $10,000 from a city-provided mural fund for the restoration of La Virgen de Guadalupe, painted in the 1970s in the Ramona Gardens public housing project.
Meanwhile, in downtown Los Angeles, Huizar secured a $150,000 private donation to restore the 70-foot Anthony Quinn Mural on the side of the Victor Clothing Building on Broadway.
“No money behind the art”
Some artists say lifting the mural ban is not enough if there is no money put behind the art.
Debora says the owner of Mbar, a friend, saved the wall space for him. He says he was paid only for the cost of the paint and considers his new mural a gift to the community where he was raised.
To create an officially approved mural, artists must apply and pay a fee. Specific guidelines must be followed, and artists must submit and present proposals at two different hearings with the Public Art Committee.
Debora, who painted the “Light from Darkness” mural last spring, started the application process, but does not have money for the anti-graffiti coating needed to complete the process. “They are giving us peanuts,” Debora says, which often discourages artists.
New public art fund
This may change with newly released city funds. In December, the Los Angeles City Council approved $1.7 million in new spending for public art. Many hope this new funding will promote new murals.
Huizar says that as a youngster growing up in Boyle Heights, murals helped teach him about his heritage. “It helped me gain a sense of identity as to who I am and would teach me history that wasn’t being taught in the classroom,” says Huizar.
This tradition came to an end when advertisers brought lawsuits against the city of Los Angeles and the city decided to ban all kinds of murals and outdoor displays and put an end to the type of creative expression found on walls and storefronts.
Huizar says he’s confident that with new funds, more artists will take advantage of the new ordinance and murals will once again become an important part of the city’s landscape.
Debora and other artists are skeptical, but hope he is right.
Debora’s mural is tied to the community in the same way that 1960s murals portrayed culture and the struggles for Mexican-Americans during the civil rights movement.
“Murals are blueprints. They are windows to the soul that tell a story, that can guide someone. Murals bring peace,” says Debora.
*This story was updated on March 11, 2015.