Local Muralist Celebrates Community Heritage

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From Wild Style graffiti to mosaic masterpieces, the Highland Park area boasts a diverse body of street art. Vivid murals cover the exteriors of buildings ranging from elementary schools to corner-store banks. Many of these are historical pieces, crafted by well-known Chicano artists, including Judy Baca, Joe Bravo and Sonya Fe. The work of Pola Lopez, an artist who has been active in the Chicano art movement in Highland Park since moving to Los Angeles 13 years ago, is interspersed among them.

According to Lopez, much of the local art reflects the Chicano and Mexican-American heritage of these artists, including her own.

“I say I’m a Mestiza, which means I’m mixed-blood,” Lopez says. “I’m [also] Native American, and I have European, Asian and Black heritage, so I’m not really Mexican-American, but I do have a Chicana voice because there is a part of me that’s Mexican.”

She, like many Highland Park muralists before her, draws inspiration from the national Chicano art movement, which started in unison with the farmworkers movement in the ’60s. The growth of the movement occurred in part to supplement the colorful posters and pamphlets necessary to advertise protests, according to Lopez. Chicano artists worked in the Mission District of San Francisco, as well as in many parts of Los Angeles — Highland Park among them.

According to Lopez, muralists felt they could help the Chicano community embrace their people and history through large, painted images on buildings, in alleyways and on the sides of small businesses. Included in the colorful murals are depictions of pyramids and Quetzalcoatl, La Vida de Guadalupe and famous revolutionaries. Lopez said that today, the art serves as decoration and as a means of solidifying the cultural identity of the community.

For example, 6037 N. Figueroa Blvd. is home to John Zender Estrada’s well-known mural entitled, “The Wall that Talks,” which is covered with larger-than-life images of Chicano, African and Native peoples.

Similarly, artists Joe Bravo and Sonya Fe collaborated to produce several sepia-toned murals depicting historical scenes, though Chicano-style murals traditionally utilize a variety of bright, intense colors. Their mural on the corner of Meridian Street and North Avenue 56 uses sepia tones for historical scenes and a broader palette for modern portraits; it is considered landmark in the community.

While much of the street art in Highland Park has been created by Chicano artists and reflects the cultural history of the neighborhood, other pieces are designed to build community or business. These include the collaborative work of children at Buchanan Elementary School and murals advertising Eagle Rock Juice Co. on Eagle Rock Boulevard and Café de Leche on York Boulevard.

Though several murals, such as Bravo and Fe’s corner piece, have been staples for decades, Lopez has seen the street art movement expand in recent years. She has highlighted much of this work at her studio, Avenue 50, which simultaneously serves as an exhibition space.

Where Avenue 50 meets the Metro line, there stands a small, beige building with the words “Avenue 50” on the right window, and “Pola L.” on the left. Small, illegible graffiti tags are scattered across the walls and pavement. Lopez leaned against a red screen door — the entrance to the studio space.

Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Lopez is an established visual artist who came to Los Angeles 13 years ago. After attending a Chicano art show in Pomona, Lopez was so inspired that she decided to move to Highland Park to immerse herself in the Chicano art movement.

Upon moving to Highland Park, Lopez worked from a studio near Downtown Los Angeles, but she changed locations after receiving the opportunity to have a workspace closer to her home. She uses only a small portion of the Avenue 50 space to paint, favoring acrylic on canvas. The rest of the studio acts as gallery space, in which she generally shows others’ art.

Lopez has shown her own work — primarily studio paintings — at numerous local and international locations. Her work is currently included in several museum collections, including the The State Art Capitol Collection in Santa Fe.

“I’ll show wherever people come, it doesn’t matter to me anymore,” Lopez said. “So I’ll do fairs, coffee shops, wherever people need to see the art, because I’ve stopped judging the venue.”

While her personal studio and fine art are important to her, Lopez has immersed herself within the Highland Park community through mural painting, using her art to inspire and empower others.

Having painted with small children and young adults, Lopez stressed the importance of art-making in all people’s lives, especially the youth. She noted the significance of her work with children and youth in correctional facilities.

“I love working on the murals because it’s a larger scale, and you affect people in a different way,” Lopez said. “I’ve done quite a few in probation camps, for kids at risk or kids who are incarcerated. It changes their lives. It’s like artist medicine to them and even just that can make them think about their lives differently, it sort of validates them, and makes them feel like they can do something, they can accomplish something they never thought they could do.”

Lopez has also worked with Occidental students over the years. Several weeks ago, a group of students from Professor Donna Maeda’s Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ) Spatial Justice course embarked on a tour of the street art in Highland Park. Lopez lead the tour.

“They gave me an hour and 45 minutes, so it was really hard, because we had to walk,” Lopez said. “I did make my own selection because I couldn’t take them everywhere. I tried to give them a mix, so they could see the graffiti and the Chicano murals, so I hope they got a good exposure to all of that.”

Carolina Cardoza, a senior CTSJ major and student in Maeda’s class, was born and raised in Highland Park. During the tour, Cardoza had the opportunity to more formally tour the street art with Lopez and other students.

“The art in HLP [Highland Park] is important because HLP is a part of the Chicano Art Movement, this movement that is very important to my community,” Cardoza said via email. “It represents our cultures. Highland Park has so many different cultures and peoples, and these murals represent that. They represent our struggles.”

For Cardoza, the murals are not only aesthetically pleasing, but culturally and politically important, something Maeda’s Spatial Justice class has opened her eyes to.

“I was never taught about the history of HLP, my culture was never represented in my teachings,” said Cardoza via email. “Therefore, growing up, I never knew the importance of this art, I never saw value to it. Now, I know what the art represents.”

Having helped create murals and street art in Highland Park, Lopez has seen the positive impact the creation of murals has had on the community, including increased ownership of the area. For this reason, Lopez said she is always encouraging new individuals to help paint.

“I allow people to come in and have that experience, because even if they just paint a line, then they feel like they’re part of it,” Lopez said. “It makes them feel connected to their community, and so it gives them pride in their community as well.”

 

Lopez also appreciates the thought-provoking aspect of art-making, as it challenges those who pass by to think, remember and take pride in the history upon which Highland Park and surrounding neighborhoods were built.

While she lauds the community-building and educational aspects of murals and street art, Lopez also acknowledges the risks involved in their creation. Oftentimes, the Highland Park community supports the work of street artists, but that sentiment doesn’t eliminate problems of violence and danger involved in the process of painting publicly. Lopez recounts a situation when painting a small mural with a teenage girl in the Highland Park neighborhood.

“There’s a little mural on a garage that I did with a 15-year-old girl [who] lives next door,” Lopez said. “We were painting this little garage, and her and all her friends were out there working and all of the sudden there was a shootout, in the apartment building next door, all these gunshots and everything, and all the kids disappeared.”

She has also witnessed first-hand the destruction of street art, partially due to gang-related tagging. While she appreciates graffiti as an art form, Lopez noted that a big issue in the neighborhood is the rampant, non-aesthetic tagging — a quick, often-messy signature — that both gang members and graffiti artists spray on top of existing work.

“We did a really beautiful mural with some high school students across from Sycamore Park, and the community loved that mural because it was about the history of Highland Park,” Lopez said. “So what they [the taggers] did is they kept tagging it and some angel came every night and would clean it, and we never knew who was cleaning the graffiti off, and they maintained it for about three years and then finally, it just got out of control. They had to take it down.”

Because of the overwhelming cost to restore tagged murals, pieces are sometimes removed, as the artists and community can’t afford the time or money needed to mend them.

Store owners and artists alike have implemented techniques to prevent the destruction of street art in the area. As locals have begun to notice that art depicting religion and figures of higher power are often left alone, business owners have begun requesting more of these images.

“I do see a lot of ‘Mom and Pop’ murals at Mom and Pop stores,” said Lopez, chuckling. “They’ll put Guadalupe, or Jesus, just because they figure that will give them some sense of protection, or the taggers won’t tag on the Virgin of Guadalupe, and they don’t. They sort of respect that for some reason.”

In 2013, a mural ordinance qualified the difference between mural art and non-artistic graffiti and required that official murals be registered through the city. Because registration requires the payment of a permitting fee, many artists continue to paint illegally, according to Lopez.

While artists, including Lopez, have had to navigate these legal obstacles, they have also had to navigate an increasingly gentrified community.

Lopez has witnessed and lived the negative effects of gentrification in Highland Park since moving to the neighborhood over a decade ago. When she moved to the area, Lopez lived in a cheap, two-story apartment building inhabited primarily by Latino, Spanish-speaking families. She noted that the rent is two or three times higher today.

Lopez’ home wasn’t the only location affected by gentrification. Her gallery, a nonprofit space designed to benefit the community, is at risk of closing.

“I mean, look at my space, it’s only 500 square feet, there’s nothing fancy, no bathroom, no running water, and I pay $1,200,” Lopez said. “[The landlord] raised it from $900 to $1,200 dollars, and it’s sad that we know that someday, he’s probably just going to kick us out.”

Although Lopez welcomes progress, she hates to see the displacement of those in her community. As the neighborhood continues to evolve, she worries that local residents will be pushed out. While she is sad about the displacement, Lopez is not surprised.

“As an artist, we go into places that are run-down and cheap because we look for the studios, and people get attracted to it because the artists are there,” Lopez said. “Then they come in and kick the artists out and build fake lofts and whatever professional spaces, so we’re used to this happening.”

Lopez refuses to let the gentrification of the community inhibit her creative process. She feels that her own art and other Chicano artists’ work is increasingly important as the community struggles to stay intact.

“How do you fight progress?” she asked. “I don’t know, and so this is why we do the murals, to keep the people, to educate people, to empower them. If the people here are being displaced, then they need to educate themselves in order to fight it. They need to take a stand.”

Recognizing the power of art — especially today, as developers and builders look to reconstruct communities and push out existing homeowners and residents — situates Lopez in an important and inspiring position in Highland Park.

Lopez hopes that her community will stay strong in the midst of its increasingly gentrified population and displacement of people she knows and cares for.

“I wish it was equal,” Lopez said, laughing. “But that would be in a perfect world.”