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Stars to shine more brightly after touch-up

Marilyn Monroe and the others depicted in Hollywood's `You Are the Star' mural are getting a face-lift from the original artist.

July 17, 2007|Tiffany Hsu | Times Staff Writer

Joan Crawford's eyes were fading away. John Wayne's jeans were splashed with acid. And Marilyn Monroe's bust and forehead were frequent targets of graffiti.

After 24 years of enduring harsh sunlight, smog and street vandals, these old-time movie stars and dozens of other celebrities whose famous mugs grace the "You Are the Star" mural on Wilcox Avenue at Hollywood Boulevard are finally getting a makeover.

New Mexico artist Thomas Suriya, who painted the 20-by-30-foot artwork in 1983, recently returned to touch up the mural, which has become a favorite among tourists.

The mural appears on Hollywood postcards and has been deemed one of the city's most-photographed attractions by the Hollywood Arts Council, which is sponsoring the restoration.

The beloved artwork has slowly deteriorated since 1983, when Suriya, then a geology graduate with no art education, came up with the "wacky concept" for the mural. It depicts 71 Hollywood stars -- including Superman and Elizabeth Taylor -- as a movie theater audience gazing out at passersby.

But time and the weather have taken their toll. Water seeped under a faulty coat of protective epoxy over the years, staining the paint, while sunlight and pollution cracked and dulled Suriya's handiwork.

Concerned with the mural's decline as well as its seedy surroundings, the Hollywood Arts Council tracked down Suriya more than a year ago to commission him for the restoration.

"If paint starts to peel anywhere, it affects the whole surrounding," said Nyla Arslanian, council president. "Having our murals brought back, particularly those that have become iconic to our community, is us putting our best foot forward."

But the artist was hesitant to take on the commission.

"I had mixed feelings about doing this," said Suriya, who returned to Hollywood on July 6 to begin the restoration. "I was not thrilled with the idea of standing there again in the worst part of Hollywood in the sun."

The arts council, with help from the Community Redevelopment Agency of the city of Los Angeles, paid for Suriya's train trip to and from Taos, N.M., and provided him a car and painting materials. Suriya is also being paid an undisclosed fee for his work.

Registered as a protected artwork by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, Suriya's painting adorns one side of an old Art Deco building. His friend Michael Attie and Attie's parents once owned the structure, as well as a lingerie store, Playmates of Hollywood, on the first floor.

Suriya is staying in a guest cottage behind Attie's house near the Beverly Center while he works on the restoration. He sets up scaffolding at the mural every morning with help from conservationists of Nathan Zakheim Associates, which removed the protective coat and applied another stabilizing layer before Suriya arrived.

"This time, all I had to do was show up with my gear and go to work," Suriya said. "It was a far cry from the first time, when I got no pay."

In 1983, Suriya was a budding artist living with Attie and other friends in an "alternative living space" near Nevada City, Calif. The Milwaukee native had a degree in geology from the University of Washington and had trained himself to paint only small artworks.

But when Attie went to Hollywood to take over the family business, he asked Suriya to come up with a mural idea for an exterior wall of the building.

"It was all so hard. I'd never painted murals before," said Suriya, who noted that it was his overactive mind, rather than any interest in celebrity culture, that produced the concept for the painting. "I initially wrote down the idea and then forgot about it until Michael gave me the green light."

Working on the project the year before the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles was a thrill, Suriya said, as film crews from all over the world followed his work. This time, things are a little more low-key, Suriya said.

"It was almost hard to get work done then. It was a scene," he said. "Now, there are some nice people coming up and being very encouraging, very positive, but there are a lot of downtrodden people here."

The newly restored mural may help perk up interest in area developers, Suriya said.

"Some of those people with their noses to the ground are starting to look up," he said. "Art has a transformative power."

The mural certainly transformed Suriya's career. It opened the floodgates for many more commissions, including projects at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market and the now- defunct KFAC radio station, before Suriya stopped painting murals in 1987.

Even as he restores his most famous work, Suriya acknowledges that the mural is outdated, a nostalgic piece for those who prefer contemporary celebrities.

"There's already a generational gap," said Suriya, who plans to spend today airbrushing shadows behind each figure.

Still, Suriya marvels at all the attention his mural generates.

"I had no idea how big it was going to be," Suriya said, waving his paint-speckled hands. "I just knew that it was going to be a cool piece of art."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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