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Four with flair

A Sampling of Some of L.A.'s Best-Known Muralists, Who Bring a Message That's Consistently Diverse

September 14, 2003|Mike Hodgkinson | Mike Hodgkinson last wrote for the magazine about bespoke tailoring.

Though the precise moment is uncertain, the modern Los Angeles public mural was born sometime in 1968 within the concurrent shock waves of era-defining political assassinations, Nixon's presidential election victory and the Cesar Chavez-led United Farm Workers boycott of table grapes.

"A lot of young artists did murals as guerrilla theater--that kind of youthful energy--and followed an idea that public space belongs to the people," says Bill Lasarow, president and co-founder of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. "It was oftentimes culturally motivated with a self-conscious rebelliousness and was connected to a lot of minority rights movements."

By Lasarow's estimation there were perhaps only 100 murals in Los Angeles by the end of the '60s. "Now it varies," he says. "If you just take murals in exterior spaces, there are 1,000 to 1,500. If you include murals that are in school playgrounds, or if you take legitimate murals that are in interior spaces that have fairly good public access, there may be at least another 1,000 to 2,000."

The last 35 years have seen a series of developments, kinks and mutations within the city's mural movement. In 1976, SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center), the group behind the Great Wall mural that covers more than half a mile of the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley, was founded. The Olympic freeway mural appeared in 1984, and the '80s saw the rise and evolution of tagging and graffiti, which many considered both indefensible vandalism and a vital component in L.A.'s mural diversity.

Today, many of the artists who gave birth to the movement in the '60s continue to work, sharing the city's collective wall space with the renegades of aerosol art, loose-cannon visionaries, commercial painters and splinter artists whose motives range from personal to political and spiritual. In the following pages, four of Southern California's leading muralists share their contrasting agendas, methods and sources of inspiration for an often-controversial art form that is consistent only in its diversity.


"I can duplicate anything that anybody hands me," says Nick Heflinger, 57, who runs A Better Sign Service out of mid-Wilshire and works at the precise point where sign-writing intersects urban mural art. For the past 14 years, Heflinger has been duplicating record sleeves and promotional flyers with photographic realism on the same south-facing wall at Melrose and Ogden. The details--every stump of stubble on Lenny Kravitz's chin, every glint of hair gel in Robbie Williams' Mohawk--are never less than astounding.

Virgin Records owns the space and pays for Heflinger's copyist talents. "The starving artist thing really doesn't appeal to me too much," he says with half a smile. "I like to eat, and enjoy the fruits of my labor." Heflinger's assistants have been handpicked from the talent pool of street muralists and graffiti artists or "writers." "These guys are real artists, some of them are as good as any artist that ever lived," Heflinger says.The path to the Melrose wall--Heflinger's longest-standing commission and his "main bread and butter these days"--began in Redondo Beach. "Through grade school and high school I never took any art classes, ever. But I used to pinstripe cars." In 1966 he joined the Air Force as an illustrator ("mostly charts and graphs"), and in the early '70s he learned sign graphics at L.A. Trade-Tech. "I decided signs were a good commercial outlet for doing art. You've got to focus and do what the people want you to do."

After a stint in Ferndale during the '70s, where he excelled at mock-Victorian sign writing, Heflinger diversified into home design and restoration. In the late '70s he created a flamboyant "art nouveau" exterior for a home on Rodeo Drive for Beverly Hills antique dealer Don O'Neill (still known to passersby as "the Gaudi house"), and in 1994 he restored the fire-damaged ceiling of the Wilshire United Methodist Church. Here he recruited some of the talent that would give his sign-painting an authentic, urban mural edge.

"I worked with a guy named Hex," says Heflinger. "He had a hip-hop store, and I told him, 'Why don't you just lay the spray can down and pick up a brush? People will start calling you an artist instead of a criminal.' We put 10,000 man-hours into that church and it came out pretty nice."

Heflinger's current crew includes Peter Calderon and the Rico Brothers, Albert and Anthony. "Peter Calderon is a very talented guy: he can mix colors like it was going out of style. Albert I'm trying to mentor into the business; he went to the same trade school that I did. His brother Anthony is still in the graffiti game a little bit. Graffiti, I'm not all for it," Heflinger adds. "But I can appreciate the guys who are really good. I can see their potential, and it's unlimited."


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