The Historic “Undiscovered America” Mural in the DTLA Arts District Has Been Restored After 25 Years
After 25 years, Earth Crew 2000 has renewed their historic mural in the DTLA Art District, a mural that has often been viewed on Cartwheel Art’s walking tours. Titled “Undiscovered America,” the mural was painted in 1992 by Earth Crew 2000. This collective of graffiti crews came together through a TEKIO youth project. They wanted to acknowledge the greatness of the ancestral cultures that resided in the Americas for thousands of years—and still reside here.
The original Earth Crew artists who painted the mural were Erick “Duke” Montenegro, Benjamin James Frank Jr., Rogelio “Angst” Cabral, and Joseph “Nuke” Montalvo. Coordinated by Helen Samuels, the mural represents little known and underappreciated achievements of Native American nations from Alaska to Argentina. It features a medicine wheel in the center in celebration of the healing of relations among all peoples of the world. “Undiscovered America” was sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and commissioned by SPARC as one of the citywide “Neighborhood Pride” Murals.
Los Angeles in the ’89s was a place of violence and unrest. In the midst of all this, Earth Crew 2000 brought together a collective of graffiti writers from different crews and cultural backgrounds. Organized in 1989 by Helen Samuels after the death of a friend from random gang violence, Earth Crew 2000 included more than 20 graffiti artists from different crews, who painted murals as a way to promote unity and non-violence and raise awareness of environmental issues. In 1992, they painted “Undiscovered America” to honor indigenous cultures.
Restoring and altering the mural after some years of abuse has been important to the muralists in a number of ways. Cartwheel Art had a chance to speak with Joseph “Nuke” Montalvo about the restoration of the mural. Nuke is an active part of the Cartwheel Art team and DTLA art community. He has been a guest speaker and art workshop leader for numerous Cartwheel Art tours, as well as a contributing artist for Hidden Rooms: Art at the Rendon, Cartwheel Art’s latest interactive community-centric activation. Currently, he helps to facilitate our Graffiti and BBQ tour. His knowledge of graffiti, muralism and the history of DTLA provides tour participants with an insider look at the Arts District.
A glimpse of Nuke’s art installation for Hidden Rooms: Art at the Rendon. Photo by Prana aka Rob Sanchez.
Describing his work on “Undiscovered America,” Joseph “Nuke” Montalvo told Cartwheel, “It means a lot. Originally when we did it through SPARC, we wanted to have some kind of lettering in it, you know, and some graf, but they shunned the idea, so we went with a different route. But we were just trying to show the world and at least the local community of artists what you could do with a spray can. It was still underestimated at that time in 1992. In our camp, we had seen Slick and Hex so I knew what a great tool a spray can was and thought it was the wave of the future. I was doing it more as an accomplishment for our scene in the long run, to represent us, to say look what we did on this wall.”
He says restoring the mural was a completely different experience. “It was hard to work on it again because the neighborhood has changed so much. I did it in the past for a neighborhood that was marginalized, I did it for the homeless people and the native people that would be coming to the social services department across the street. To show off to the older Arts District people that had embraced us like those at the American Hotel, ‘Look at us we went from the parking lot at Al’s Bar to a legal wall. Hey, we’re graduated in a way and we want to be artists too like you!’ And working at it now, it was almost like a defensive thing, so they don’t forget, because with all the changes of the area, the Arts District was starting to forget the Earth Crew wall. I’m not restoring it for myself, but for the people that paid a lot of dues so that this could be named the Arts District. Whether it’s Skate, or Skept or even Key or Design, all of us that congregated a lot right there. So it was a way to remind them, ‘Hey, don’t forget us, we came here to bust, to kick [art] ass!’ I felt intimidated at first because all this stuff is going up around it; there is [street art by] Humane and Shepard Fairey and people are jocking that, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, some of that stuff has substance but here’s the Earth Crew wall and not only is it still there, but now it’s all bombed [with vandalistic graffiti],’ which was a whole other thing I had to deal with. I think in the last four or five years I have gotten through to a lot of bombers [those doing a lot of quick illegal graffiti] to respect at least that wall and maybe extend that to other murals as well.”
Nuke leading an art workshop during Cartwheel Art’s Graffiti & BBQ tour. Photo by Fred Hoerr.
Nuke continues, “I believe something was done with this Earth Crew mural that DCA and SPARC could not do: bridge the gap between muralists and graffiti artists and bombers. The help we got with funding and materials sometimes came from strange places; when I asked for help, Heaven (of K2S Crew) contributed, and Septerhed was the first one on my doorstep asking, ‘What do you need?’ He came with all new paint and said take what you need. So it showed a lot of growth and there was a lot to learn this time around and especially after the mural ordinance happened. I told Duke, ‘This is an opportunity to approach this wall with new paint and a mature sense of our craft, and let’s bust!’ We’re battling these forces in the Arts District in many ways. And we have a chance to have a second wind. And Duke was exceptional with his Mayan calendar which had a strong impact on the wall, and without that new addition, it wouldn’t be the wall it is today. Eventually, Art Share convinced the DCA to give us some money even though it wasn’t going to be a straight restoration. I thought, ‘People change, the walls change.’ I’m glad I have that relationship with Art Share because they really do care about the historical context of the wall and what it has to say. I still feel like that small person with that oncoming wave of gentrification that has swept over the neighborhood, and it’s not over yet. Even staking a claim in the American Hotel parking lot hasn’t been easy, but I’m not staking it for me in particular, I’m doing it so they don’t forget that it was real writers, real kids that actually brought that there… and we grew up.”
For more information, or to make a donation to support this project, visit Eko-Habitat.org.
“Undiscovered America” Mural Address:
843 East 4th St., Los Angeles, CA 90013
After Party Address:
Art Share LA
801 E 4th Place
Los Angeles, CA 90013