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Mural Virtue : Gang Artists Vow to Keep Wall Free of Graffiti


SILVER LAKE — One of the most "tagged" walls in Silver Lake has gotten a face lift thanks to some neighborhood children and some of the taggers themselves who, struck by the beauty of the mural that resulted from their efforts, vowed to keep it graffiti-free.

The gang member-artists, who claim the mural's street corner as their turf, came to a dedication ceremony last weekend with beer bottles in brown bags and proclaimed the mural lovely enough to be the pride of Aztlan, the name of their gang.

The young men were tattooed with "Aztlan," which means "The Promised Land" in Spanish. Their bodies also boasted other marks all too common with their lifestyles: an array of scars from gunshot and knife wounds received while protecting their turf.

"It's a pride thing," one young man explained.

"When I first saw (the completed mural), I was going to draw a big, black 'AZT' (gang insignia) over it," said Robert (Little Bugsy) Gonzales, 20. "Then I thought it over. It looks too good. It's art. When I was in school, I liked art."

The mural features four images of Latina angels playing musical instruments. Titled "Angels of the Music" by 12-year-old Mario Hernandez, the work was introduced to the community Saturday afternoon with a little pomp and circumstance.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman-elect Jackie Goldberg dedicated the mural at Sunset Boulevard and Descanso Drive as the diverse group of artists stood by.

Neighborhood youngsters, like Mario, who worked on the mural for two weeks, were not to be upstaged by the gangbangers.

Full of giddy excitement, Mario and his siblings, twin sister Maria, and Oscar, 10; and Michael Camacho, 12, and his little brother Omar, 7, were among the dozen youngsters who showed up Saturday afternoon with neatly combed hair and wearing their best clothes to claim certificates, provided by one of the neighbors, for their artistic contribution. And free pizza from a nearby Domino's didn't hurt.

"They are as beautiful as the (real) angels playing music," said Mario, beaming over the finished work.

Maria said the first angel on the left was modeled after her.

Oscar said he would challenge any taggers who dare deface the mural by saying: "Why do you paint that on? We're going to tell Annie."

That would be Annie Sperling, the Silver Lake artist who designed the mural and worked with the neighborhood volunteers. She has since taken some of the children to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Barnsdall Art Park. In a show of appreciation and to mark the mural's unveiling, the children washed Sperling's car and painted her a cardboard box to store her art supplies.

Aztlan member Arturo Rodriguez, 25, was proudly showing off a photograph Sperling had taken of his 16-month-old son standing in front of the mural.

But a quiet fan of the mural who was not present at the dedication was the Thrifty Market owner whose wall is the "canvas" for the mural.

"It's so much better than the graffiti," Hung S. Park said in Korean. "I regret I couldn't give them some money for paint, but business is so bad nowadays what with the economy."

But she did encourage the progress of the mural by delivering soda pop to the artists during the hot days of painting.

The grand orchestrator of the community effort was Tim Hepworth, a member of the Silver Lake Improvement Assn., who was looking for a creative way to rid the neighborhood of graffiti. He first thought planting vines over the wall might help, but decided to opt for a more fun activity.

"I think (the mural) worked," he said. "I think they all enjoyed working on it. I know the kids absolutely loved it."

Hepworth's organization had a garage sale to raise money to pay Sperling for her work. They have raised $450 but would like to pay her $1,000, he said.

Jerry Sider, an area resident of five years, came out to look at what all the fuss was about Saturday afternoon.

"I'm very impressed," he said. "It's the first time I know of when they got the (Aztlan gang) involved in anything worthwhile. God knows I've painted over a lot of graffiti. It was a daily thing for (the neighborhood). Drove us nuts."

Sider may be even more impressed after he learns that the gang members have plans to create more murals. They said a portrait of the Virgin Mary will be the next project, perhaps on the wall of a carwash in the alley around the corner from the "Angels of the Music."

As for the "AZT" insignia--coincidentally also the name of a drug used in the treatment of AIDS--well, it suits the Aztlan members just fine, Gonzales said.

"In a way it's good. They (medical officials) are using my neighborhood's name," he said. " 'The Promised Land' is Los Angeles. This is where I grew up and this is where I'm going to die--like my homeboys."

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