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Thinking Outside the Tanks

Tagger-turned-artist wants to raise enough money to put murals on Westminster's water reservoirs.

March 28, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Westminster is helping an artist seek funding to paint murals on two city-owned water tanks, industrial-colored replacements for a concrete reservoir that ruptured five years ago and soaked the community in 5 million gallons of drinking water.

The project would be the second public artwork the city has encouraged but declined to fund. The Vietnam War memorial, which depicts an American and a South Vietnamese soldier fighting side-by-side, is still wrapped in plastic at a park near City Hall.

The murals would cost about $218,000. City officials have agreed to seek federal and state grants, fellowships from art foundations and donations for the project but won't spend any city money.

"It's a nice idea, but it's an expense we can't really afford," Councilman Kermit Marsh said.

Anh Pham, a 28-year-old tagger-turned-artist, hopes to paint over the light grayish-green tanks at Hoover and Hazard streets with a patriotic theme to salute the city's cultural diversity. One element in the design would be the war memorial.

City officials, who must still approve the design, have asked Pham to try to reduce the project's cost.

The new tanks replace the water tank that ruptured in the northwest part of the city in September 1998, sending millions of gallons of drinking water through neighborhoods, flipping cars and destroying homes. The flood caused more than $29 million in damage. It was later determined the tank had a construction flaw.

An April dedication is planned for the 8-million-gallon water tanks that were positioned along a flood control channel in the center of the city, away from homes. The tanks neighbor a small business complex and a cemetery.

Many cities, such as Fountain Valley and Santa Ana, decorate water tanks with city logos. City officials in South Gate spent $20,000 from its water budget to have artists paint a mural on its 2.5-million-gallon water tank, which is visible from the Long Beach Freeway near Firestone Boulevard.

City officials said the paintings, completed three weeks ago, of marching American Revolutionary soldiers improve the aesthetics of what was a dull white tank that some considered an eyesore.

"It just gives you a patriotic sense of being, adds flavor to the freeway and makes the tank look better," said John Chambers, manager of the water division.

"It's beautiful, and right now is the perfect time to have it."

If approved, Westminster's mural would be much more elaborate. A U.S. flag would wrap around the 21,600 square-foot steel tanks with an eagle and five stars, each depicting the city's cultural diversity. There would be a Latino dancer, a member of a local pipe and drum troupe, a Little Saigon dragon dancer, a senior citizen helping a student with homework and the war memorial statue -- in this case, unwrapped.

"Everyone on the mural lives and performs in the city," said Pham. "It's for the community."

It would take a five-person crew about five months to complete, Pham said.

Pham, who emigrated from Vietnam in 1975 with his family, said he sprayed graffiti along freeways, under bridges and on fences from Burbank to San Diego when he was 9. By 10, he had learned to airbrush. He is now working for the city's Channel 3 station as a part-time video production assistant and owns an art studio in Long Beach.

He turned the blank walls at Dana Hills High School in Dana Point into a wildlife scene with buffalo, Native Americans and waterfalls. He also painted murals at the National Wildlife Refuge at the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach.

"Everything that I see blank, I want to paint," Pham said. "But this will be the most gigantic mural I've ever imagined."

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