The colors of Vermont Avenue: A tribute to public murals

By Sophie Gosper

Vermont Avenue stretches from the Griffith Park hills to the Pacific Coast Highway. It flows through the bourgeois streets of Los Feliz, the bustling area of Koreatown, briefly passes the red brick walls of the University of Southern California and continues on deep into the concrete jungle of South Los Angeles. Its adjoining neighborhoods may be culturally and economically diverse, but all along its way the face of each community is portrayed through urban artistic expression; and you can find it on a brick wall.

The forgotten, or perhaps simply under appreciated, art of urban mural painting is scattered along Vermont Avenue like hidden treasures that appear around corners, down alleys and hanging over entrances. They express the vision, the hope and the loss of a community, often created by a group of people in the act of bringing a neighborhood closer together.

Los Angeles Eco Village: Bimini Place, Koreatown

A large coiled-up snake basks patiently on the warm asphalt, its blue and yellow body stretching roughly 25-yards. Tucked behind the chaos of the Vermont passage, lies the Los Angeles Eco Village, a self-sustaining community focused on maintaining an ecologically, socially and economically conscious neighborhood.

Members of the eco-village and local families painted the snake on the crosswalk in front of the village in an attempt to make the streets safer for local school children. Given its location, Bimini place has become an alternate route for Vermont drivers, with runoff traffic flowing into the quiet side street. Now, the neighborhood snake sticks its forked tongue out to speeding cars, reminding them to slow down and beware of pedestrians.

The sidewalks along Bimini Place also reflect the artistic vision of the community. The pavements used to be vandalized by graffiti and gang-symbols, but instead of washing them away or painting over them, the villagers decided to adapt the symbols and create their own pavement art.

“It was our little way of fighting back,” says Lara Morrison, manager of the eco-village, with a proud grin.

Corner of 22nd and Vermont Avenue:

“Hate Free Community” is painted across the sidewall of the Discount Liquor store just south of the 10-Freeway in South Los Angeles. The orange and yellow, sunset-like piece portrays Jimmy Hendrix and Che Guevara in a silhouette style with a peace sign painted between them.

“Street murals often have a very polarizing affect by virtue of why and how people think and feel about living in their area,” says Robert Alderette, a fine arts professor at the University of Southern California. “The imagery discovered becomes ours.”

Pieces such as this are often found in lower economic communities, many of which are defined by racial or cultural beliefs. South Los Angeles, a predominantly Latino and African American population, often use this type of imagery to promote a sense of community; the idyllic messages used to share a larger message of hope in hard times.

Corner of 51st and Vermont Avenue:

Past USC and deep into the heart of South Los Angeles, Martin Luther King’s face stares out from a brick wall and over the street into a closed-down auto parts shop. The street is relatively empty and the cars that are parked on the side of the road appear to have been sitting there for a while, evident by the collected dust on the top of their wheels.

On his right is a painted scene of a bald eagle, an American soldier carrying a little girl, and the Statue of Liberty all in front of a wind-rippled American Flag. On his left is a painting of a church in the background and in the foreground an image of the Madonna.

“People are always drawn to images that give them hope or hold some existential meaning,” says Michelle Homami, a fine arts student at the University of Southern California focusing on street art. “These images bring communities together, the purpose of street art is to speak for the collective not for the individual. That’s why they’re so often anonymous, it doesn’t matter who painted it because it unites us.”

Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, 6102 Vermont Avenue:

The buildings look progressively uniformed south of 61st street: Weathered grey-brick shop fronts and half empty strip malls proliferate Vermont Avenue. The poorly maintained street glows dusty beige in the sinking Los Angeles sun. Thus, it would be hard to miss the explosion of color covering the public library, with four different murals by four different artists featured along its wall, each promoting an individual message and style.

“There isn’t a lot of public art in this neighborhood, so that’s why we decided to ask Los Angeles mural artists to paint the library,” says library employee Michelle Welsing. “We get a lot of interested people looking at it and coming up and touching it.”

On the front of the building is a tiled Olmec mural created by artist Jose Antonio Guerrez with the requested help of the wider community. Above the mosaic, bannered along the top of the building is a long painting by Los Angeles mural artist Eva Cockcroft titled “History of Women in the California Labor Movement”. Done in acrylic, the piece prominently features strong female leaders within the social and urban movements of Los Angeles. Also facing Vermont, featured on a separate wall, is Man One’s vibrant, graffiti-style mural ‘They Claim on the Criminal’, depicting two larger-than-life figures chained to one another. On north side of the building Mike Alewitz’ ‘Labor Solidarity has no Borders’ uses mystical-abstraction to comment on socialism, portraying it as a green, man-eating monster. All of these pieces deal with social and cultural issues, adhering to the libraries purpose and promoting a deeper conversation about society within the community.

“Art encourages people connect,” Homami says, “so when art is displayed in a public forum or on a public building, people are inclined to feel that this place is connecting with it’s community, and in turn they will feel safe in it.”

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