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Slab Art

We discover them, really, by accident.

Turn any corner in Los Angeles, and a mural may appear: Our Lady of Guadalupe gracing a bodega wall, or chamber musicians eight stories tall on a downtown parking structure.

Murals live gloriously in this city of light. They shimmer in L.A.’s natural illumination, and the sun, a celestial klieg light, heightens and honors their hues. It’s amusingly hopeful that murals situate so pleasantly on large, gray slabs of buildings — the battleships of the construction industry. Murals turn freeway walls, whose plain purpose is to constrain sound and conform traffic, into windows of beauty. The irony is rich: The 5, the 10, the 710 and others all have done much to bestow on Los Angeles a reputation of visual blight.

L.A.’s murals are as varied as its people. They may be religious, political, educational, decorative, whimsical or surreal. They range from David Alfaro Siqueiros’ “Tropical America” (Olvera Street’s Italian Hall) to “Jesus Roller Skating With Friends in Venice Beach” (Venice Beach) by Maur Van Doorslaer, O.S.B., “Gateway to the San Gabriel Valley” (Mission Road, in Alhambra) by Art Mortimer and San Fernando Valley’s 2,754-foot-long “Great Wall of Los Angeles” (Coldwater Canyon Avenue). And in Boyle Heights, “Jobs Not Jails” reflects the Jesuit commitment to the service of faith and promotion of justice found in Homeboy Industries, established by Greg Boyle, S.J., M.A.’85.

Chris Torres ’09 is an urban designer and landscape artist at Rios Clementi Hale Studios, an architectural, landscape and urban design firm in Los Angeles. As a junior, Torres studied murals in the South Bronx and Paris in Columbia University’s Shape of Two Cities architecture and design program. When he returned to LMU as a senior, he continued his work on murals as an intern with the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Torres says murals make L.A. artistically unique: “Los Angeles is a city that has few monuments like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Times Square in New York City. It has ‘colloquial’ art — art that allows anyone who has a vision and $10 for paint and brushes to turn a garage door into an alternative vision of the city. Murals are part of the physical, spatial experience of the city. That’s why L.A. is artistically the most exciting, interesting city in the world — its murals.”

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is editor LMU Magazine. He is also host of “Off Press,” the podcast of LMU Magazine. You can find other writings of his at his Editor’s Blog. Follow him on Twitter @jwlmageditor.