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Capturing the Art of the City for 'L.A. Walls' : Pair Roaming the Streets to Document Murals for Permanent Photo Directory

November 30, 1987|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

Gary Orlin pulls his car quickly to the side of the crowded street in East Los Angeles while his partner, Gary Tamkin, hops out to photograph a brilliantly colored mural on the side of a tortilla factory.

Another job for the "Mural Patrol."

That's what Orlin and Tamkin laughingly call themselves as they spend their weekends cruising neighborhoods and documenting the city's wall art for a book they are producing titled "L.A. Walls." The book, they believe, would be the first comprehensive directory of the varied murals that dot the city.

Their project is backed by the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy, a coalition of arts groups formed in January to protect and maintain the city's public murals. Orlin and Tamkin came up with the idea of the directory early this year, after they discovered that no registry of Los Angeles' murals exists.

Now, eight months and hundreds of letters later, the two Southern Californians have the support of a broad range of artists, community groups and politicians. They have photographed, catalogued and researched more than 300 murals on their way to producing a book they hope will be both a tour guide for people interested in public art and a registry for people dedicated to preserving that art.

"The whole idea is you could wake up on a Sunday, throw the book in your car, pack a picnic and go exploring for the afternoon," Tamkin said as he snapped photos of a mural on the side of a pharmacy. "It's so hard to find things in L.A., but it's a shame to waste a cultural resource."

Orlin and Tamkin sent out proposals last month to a dozen local and national publishers, but the Mural Conservancy has agreed to publish the book locally if no commercial publishers express interest. Bill Lasarow, president of the Visual Artists Guild and a board member of the conservancy, said the 530-member organization has about $6,000 in its coffers and will conduct a number of fund-raisers in coming months.

"We are definitely formally committed to this project, but we are in the early stages of deciding how we are going to go about it," Lasarow said.

The book, slated for completion in March, will contain about 200 pages, combining a registry of the city's murals with a map and guide of where to find them, Orlin said. More than a thousand murals reportedly are in the city, ranging in subject matter from Latino street scenes to Hollywood vistas, in genre from abstract images to photorealism, but many have never been catalogued, Lasarow said.

"Part of the reason for that is the professionalism of murals and muralists has been questioned by serious artists," he said. "A registry of murals will reflect the importance of mural art by providing a basic research tool for people who have a deeper, serious interest in public art."

Artist Kent Twitchell, whose "Old Woman of the Freeway" became the centerpiece of efforts by art preservationists when it was painted over last year, introduced Orlin and Tamkin to the Mural Conservancy. Twitchell has painted more than 25 murals in the city and said a directory of Los Angeles' murals is sorely needed. "Murals are natural to L.A.," he said. "There are a lot of things that L.A. has that other cities have better, but murals are like jazz to New Orleans. They're something that just happened here, without people trying. You just put it out there and people make up their own mind about what it's worth. But this will help people find the murals."

Orlin, a computer consultant, and Tamkin, a first-year medical student at UC Irvine, are perhaps unlikely players for the role of art preservationists. They are not professional artists but art lovers drawn to murals because they find them more accessible and inviting than art in galleries and museums. "There's something Populist about murals. It's public art, it's not elitist the way galleries tend to be in the 20th Century," Orlin said. "If you're driving down the street thinking about your daily problems and you're suddenly confronted with this image, it can sort of jerk you out of your reverie, it can somehow grab you and shake you. That is what art is supposed to do."

Crawling through shrubbery to get a closer look at a muralist's signature and dodging cars to document the art that lines the freeways, Orlin and Tamkin draw stares from passers-by as they peer closely at artwork--that most people glance at quickly--and question store owners and residents about the murals they find. Elias Ornelas, the proprietor of a pet shop on Brooklyn Avenue, answered Orlin's queries about a mural depicting Noah's Ark on the outside wall of his shop. "The gangs, they respect this mural," he said. "They must like it, they don't paint over it."

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