LACMA Panel: A Mural Journey from Teotihuacan to Los Angeles

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If you follow us here at Cartwheel Art, then chances are you know last fall, the Los Angeles city-wide ban on murals, imposed in 2002, was finally lifted.

The reasons behind the ban were varied, and arguably unclear, but whatever the logic behind the original ban, it led to a sad 11 years for a city unofficially hailed as “The Mural Capitol of the World.”

The over-reaching ban, of course, never deterred artists from doing their thing. Many displays of public art continued (both illegally, and sometimes with special permission) and within those “dark years” (as I’ve heard them jokingly called!), Los Angeles began a true art revival, mostly within warehouses, mom-and-pop galleries, and the underground scene.

After much blood, sweat and public discourse however–with support from civic leaders and artists alike (notably from Shepard Faerie, probably the most famous of the bunch)- the ban was finally lifted. It was a happy, happy day!

The mural ban lift has brought a new kind of life to our Downtown streets–perhaps propelling the Downtown renaissance into an even brighter future.

The lift has also opened the door for artists from the around the globe to come and share their work. Cartwheel Art’s founder Cindy Schwartzstein has even began a compelling tour of downtown murals– its route changes every two weeks, in order to include the newest and most current work finding its way to the walls of downtown buildings.


Sunday May 4, LACMA presented an intriguing panel presentation of the mural’s role in shaping civic identity and of the future role of murals in our society.

Hosted by Victoria Lyall, the presentation, was held to both celebrate the mural-ban lift, and to highlight LACMA’s current show, “The Painted City: Art from Teotihuacan.” It explored the history of the Los Angeles Mural and offered a loose comparison between the murals of modern day multi-ethnic Los Angeles to the murals created by the multi-ethnic peoples of Teotihuacan. Along with being multi-ethnic, much like Los Angeles, 5th century Teotihuacan, located just outside of Modern Mexico city, was a city of murals. LACMA explained the premise and history behind the panel discussion:

Adjacent to the modern metropolis of Mexico City in the valley of Mexico, Teotihuacan grew to be the sixth largest city in the world by 500 CE. As the city’s population boomed, sprawling apartment complexes were erected to accommodate a fast-growing middle class. These residences, depicted in an 18-foot mural included in the exhibition, were painted in a vivid palette, and spoke to the city’s prosperity and the development a distinct urban aesthetic rooted in the architectural context of the home.

As the largest metropolis in Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan attracted artists and merchants from across the region and became a place where ideas and technologies were traded readily. Teotihuacanos developed a pictorial writing system dependent on a shared system of signs that adorned the city. Painted ceramics provide one of the most important avenues for understanding Teotihuacan’s visual language and attest to the principal role that painting played in the city’s artistic tradition

The audience was taken on a fascinating journey–first beginning with the exploration the murals’ evolution, briefly touching on humankind’s ancient relationship with symbols and the creation of public art, and leaving us with one question to ponder: What is the purpose of the modern mural, anyway?


LACMA Senior Curator Ilene Fort took an academic look back at the mural history of America, exploring the Beaux-Art period, and examined several mural pieces within East Coast government buildings and schools. She ended her discussion talking about the West Coast mural piece “The Story of Venice.” It depicts Venice Founder Abbot Kinney in an Art Deco-like dreamland, and will be on view at LACMA beginning May 18th as part of their upcoming exhibition: “Edward Biberman, Abbot Kinney and the Story of Venice.” Long Hanging in the Venice post office, “The Story of Venice” is truly a perfect piece to celebrate both Los Angeles’s varied history, and its long standing relationship with murals.

Matthew Robb, Curator of Americas at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, discussed the ancient murals of Teotihuacan. His museum curates the largest collection of Teotihuacan mural fragments and artifacts outside of Mexico.

He pointed out that because so little is known about the peoples of Teotihuacan, what we do know invariably leads to more questions.

What is known, is that people from many areas congregated at Teotihuacan, and that their murals consisted of both state ideology–symbols that everyone living within the walls of Teotihuacan agreed was important, and also of localized images–images brought with the people from their own distant villages to the greater metropolis of Teotihuacan.

Within the city’s remaining mural fragments, it is quite evident that every piece, drawing, color and symbol represented specific ideas that were important to those for whom they were created.

These points led to two exciting parallels between the lost city of Teotihuacan and modern Los Angeles: Both cities harbor murals that speak to its people and express their personal truths, and both places are truly a city of immigrants, immigrants with their own beliefs and understanding of the greater world.

This idea sparked a riveting discussion of the language of murals.

Judy Baca explored the history of murals within Los Angeles county, from the 1970s through the early 2000s. She lent a world of experience and expertise to the afternoon, as she has been a Los Angeles muralist since the early 80’s. It was then, she and team of muralists painted the city in preparation for the ’84 Olympics.

Ms. Baca, now a Professor at UCLA and art mentor to many new artists, continues to work on funded mural projects. She has an unmatched passion for the purpose of murals within a community and is committed to educating the public about the local communities of Los Angeles and its immigrant and indigenous populations.

Ms. Baca believes that a mural is truly in

civil conversation with those living in the community it is presented in.

For her, a mural should be both provocative and express the views, trials, tribulations and beliefs of a community.

Her ideas revealed a fascinating juxtaposition of thought to those of the two final panelists, City Planning Director Tanner Blackman and Cartwheel Art Founder Cindy Schwartzstein.

Tanner Blackman acted as a key figure in lifting the mural ban. He held neighborhood meetings and mural ban discussions in art galleries throughout Los Angeles. He worked hard to create an agreed upon definition for ” A Mural” and is an unrelenting voice in freedom of expression. His talk, discussing “Is this a Mural?” explores people’s understanding of murals, and exposes the fine line between art, expression, and commercialism.

Cindy Schwartzstein offered us a visual journey of the modern mural in Los Angeles. She works hard to keep a current record of the mural art currently being created, and updates her mural “inventory” list every other week. She particularly mentioned: Angelina Christina, Dabs and Myala, Craola, How and Nosm, JR, Shepard Fairey, Tristan Eaton, Damon Martin, Allison “Hueman” Torreros, Augustine Kofe, Mister Cartoon and graffiti crews such as UTI Crew, CBS Crew, LOD Crew, OFA Crew graffiti artists with crew associations being Risk, Vyal, Saber MSK, Zes MSK and others.

Cindy hailed the variety of work we are seeing in the mural world, and noted that

we are definitely seeing an influx of muralists and artists coming to Los Angeles to take advantage of the new mural ban lift.

These artists travel the world, creating installations and signature pieces throughout many cities and continents. For these artists, the world is their gallery. Here, they work alongside native Angeleno artists presenting their own ideas, colors and inspirations.

This idea of street art as gallery pieces, is a very different perspective from the previous generation of muralists, who view murals as a safe place for pure community expression.

During the panel discussion portion, questions were posed like

What happens when artists leave the city they’ve come to work? Who pays to up-keep these murals? Is it fair that those in the neighborhood are left to live with a piece they may not like or agree with? Are streets and neighborhoods really just gallery space, or are they something else? Are murals merely a beautifying trick to spruce up a run down neighborhood, or are the really meant solely for political purposes?

Interestingly, there are current artists who are addressing these issues right now: Artists like Andrew Schoultz, whose most recent downtown mural addresses the ”gentrification” of the neighborhood in which the piece is painted in, and the ever changing real estate market of Los Angeles.

It is a fascinating conversation that barely had time to begin, as the panelists unfortunately ran out of time.

It is a debate I look forward to hearing more of. Murals are important, everyone seems to agree. They were important 1500 years ago, and they are important today. The reason of “Why” they are so important , seems to be the constant source of debate and wonder. Whether murals will be funded by the city, local government, or private parties, the debate over the place of murals within a community will continue to keep muralists, murals and art a hot topic, and in the public eye. And that is only a very good thing.

All Photos shown here were part of the Arts District mural slide presentation by Cindy Schwarzstein with the exception of the top image that was provided by LACMA of  Ceramic Works from Teotihuacan that are featured in the exhibition at LACMA for The Painted City : Art from Teotihuacan and the second image down by Naomi Scully. Second image is Panel Discussion participants (left to right) Judy Baca, mural artist, founder/artistic director of Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), and professor at the university of Los Angeles California, Los Angeles; Ilene Fort, Senior Curator of American Art at LACMA, Matthew Robb, Curator of Art of the Americas at San Francisco’s de Young Museum; Tanner Blackman, Planning Director for District 14 (L.A. City Council); Cindy Schwarzstein, Cartwheel Art, Founder and Moderator Victoria Lyall, Associate Curator of the Art of the Ancient Americas at LACMA.


“Undiscovered America” mural by Earth Crew: Erik “Duke” Montengro, Benjamin James Frank Jr., Rojello “Angst” Cabral, and Joseph “Nuke Montalvo” and was sponsored and commissioned under the direction of Judy Baca with SPARC in 1992.








 Mister Cartoon


UTI Crew with Petal, Black Light King and “Nuke” Montalvo shown here on the lift when the mural was being painted. Mateo is a french artist  that also painted as a guest on the mural that is located on the American Hotel




 Shepard Fairey “Peace Goddess”


 Dabs & Myla and How & Nosm collaboration “Cream of the Crop”

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 JR and Kid Zoom at Angel City Brewery


 Dabs & Myla and Greg “Craola” Simkins collaboration


Angelina Christina and Fin Dac collaboration


 Andrew Schoultz painted his mural “Imperial” to address a social issue he believed is effecting the community that is directed at the real estate speculation and gentrification occurring in the Arts District.

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