LA Muralists Sonia Romero And Kristy Sandoval Paint The Future
On the mezzanine level inside the Mariachi Plaza Metro Station in Boyle Heights, you can't help but notice the northwest wall and its collection of brightly painted objects -- a fedora, a feather, a violin, a sombrero, a protest sign, monarch butterflies. It's Sonia Romero's latest mural, "Hecho a Mano," a work that interweaves three generations of family lore with the neighborhood's diverse history.
From there, if you were to hop on the Gold Line to Union Station, transfer to the Red Line to North Hollywood, switch to the #224 bus and get off at the corner of San Fernando Road and Van Nuys Boulevard, you'd find yourself on a stretch of Pacoima where auto body shops, hair salons, restaurants and insurance offices serve as large-scale canvases. Known as Mural Mile, the stretch boasts more than 30 works, approximately a third of which were created by Pacoima native Kristy Sandoval.
As two of the most celebrated and prolific muralists in Los Angeles, a city that ranks alongside Buenos Aires, Melbourne, New York City and Montreal as one of the mural capitals of the world, Romero and Sandoval join a legacy of trailblazers who put this city's street art on the map.
L.A.'s modern mural era began in the late 1960s. Within a decade, art historians estimate that L.A. County had nearly 2,500 public murals. In the intervening 40 years, many have disappeared, either buffed over, faded by the sun or tagged with graffiti. But if you know where to look, you can still find them.
Judy Baca's half-mile long "The Great Wall of Los Angeles" decorates the Tujunga Wash between Oxnard and Burbank boulevards. With images of Native Americans, Black civil rights pioneer Biddy Mason, Chinese railroad workers, the citrus industry and Rosie the Riveter, it depicts 10,000 years of California history. Thanks to a $5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the monumental mural is about to be extended to include the period from 1984 to 2020. And the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is under construction at Exposition Park, just acquired Baca's "The History of California" archive, documenting her creation of the work.
You'll find Willie Herron's "The Wall that Cracked Open" in an alley off City Terrace Boulevard and Carmelita Avenue. Eloy Torrez's "The Pope of Broadway," which features actor Anthony Quinn and sits north of the Bradbury Building in downtown L.A., received a glorious full restoration in 2017. Not all works have been so lucky.
In 2002, the L.A. City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal to create murals on most private properties. That didn't stop artists. They continued painting images on buildings while officials did their best to eradicate the works. After a decade-long battle, the powers that be finally lifted the ban in 2013 -- but not before hundreds of murals, including some of L.A.'s most famous public artworks, had been painted over.
Since then, L.A.'s murals have blossomed. Dozens of artists including Baca, Herron, Torrez, Gronk, the East Los Streetscapers, Frank Romero, Richard Wyatt Jr., Michael Massenburg, Man One and Mear One have made the city their canvas. Most of them -- or at least the ones drawing the most public acclaims -- have been men.
"Muralism has traditionally been a male-dominated field," says Isabel Rojas-Williams, an art historian and curator who is the former executive director of the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy.
In the 1970s, Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights emerged as one of the hubs of the Chicano Mural Movement. "In a time of great social revolution, muralism proved a distinctive form of Mexican American countercultural production," historian Sandra de la Loza explains in her book, The Pocho Research Society Field Guide to L.A.
The works touched on a variety of themes including 1960s liberation movements, indigenous cultures and contemporary social issues. One section, known as Nature Row, "transformed the sterile grid of the projects," de la Loza writes, into something "cosmic, fantastic and lush."
But as Rojas-Williams points out, "At the time Estrada Courts' iconic murals were painted, only two women were included among the over 90 murals at the site."
Pioneers such as Baca, Judithe Hernández, Barbara Carrasco, Dolores Guerrero-Cruz, Noni Olabisi and Eva Cockcroft haven't always received the recognition they deserve. They not only created stunning murals, they blazed a trail for a new generation of artists like Romero and Sandoval, both of whom are stamping the city with their creation myths.
Looking Back To Go Forward
When Romero, 40, was commissioned for "Hecho a Mano" in 2015, she decided to stage three public photo shoots at Mariachi Plaza and Self Help Graphics. She asked the more than 50 participants, who she had recruited from the neighborhood, to pose with objects they had chosen.
"After collecting 300 photographs, I selected 16 objects. The composition of the 16 objects and hands create a narrative about Boyle Heights and Mariachi Plaza," Romero says. That narrative tells a story of reverence for indigenous ceremonies, Día de los Muertos, the musical traditions of Mariachi Plaza and the generations of families who have called Boyle Heights home.
Her father happens to be pioneering muralist Frank Romero, who founded influential Chicano art collective Los Four along with Carlos Almaraz, Gilbert "Magu" Sanchez Lujan and Roberto de la Rocha. From 1973 to 1983, they painted scores of murals and held numerous gallery shows including a groundbreaking 1974 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was the first Chicana/o art show hosted by a major museum. They also collaborated with Judithe Hernández, who joined the collective. (The 2004 documentary Los Four/Murals of Aztlan offers more insight on their work.)
Frank Romero remains a working artist. His 1984 "Going to the Olympics" mural, at the intersection of the 10, 110 and 101 freeways in DTLA, remains one of the city's most recognizable pieces of public art. While not as well-known as Sonia's father, Nancy Romero, Sonia's mother, is also a painter, although not in the public realm. Sonia's maternal grandparents, Edith and Frank Wyle, are also the founders of the Craft And Folk Art Museum (now known as Craft Contemporary).
Sonia Romero says much of what she learned about art from her family, she gleaned through osmosis. "When I was growing up, I was around a lot of painters including my parents and their circle of friends, a lot of whom are known Chicanx artists," Romero says. "I absorbed these adults making art in all sorts of mediums. Sometimes I joined them but more often than not, I would work on projects by myself in my room. My parents let me sell my work in their studio sales from age 7 and this was a great motivator for me to make art my career."
Romero has come full circle, moving her family into her childhood home in Echo Park and creating art in the same studio where her parents once worked.
After attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Romero headed for the Rhode Island Institute of Design. She returned to Los Angeles in 2002 and within a few years, she was winning commissions.
One of her first big projects was "Urban Oasis," a 13-panel, porcelain tile mosaic that debuted at the MacArthur Park Metro Station in 2010. Each panel contains a black and white tableau featuring scenes of life in the neighborhood -- a street vendor, the Westlake Theater, people playing soccer in the park, a young girl feeding birds. The panels are outlined in gray as a tribute to the area's industrial roots.
Romero has also been commissioned to paint murals in Little Tokyo, Lincoln Heights, the Byzantine Latino Quarter, Artesia and at four public swimming pools. The pool at Belvedere Park in East Los Angeles includes Romero's silk-screened, glazed bisque tile mosaic series, "They Fly Through Water." The laser-cut painted steel figures depict local children descending into the water in joyous fashion.
"My favorite part of creating public art is being exposed to and interacting with culture and community outside of my studio. I also enjoy flexing my design muscles and coming up with creative solutions for public spaces," Romero says.
For "Hecho A Mano" at the Mariachi Plaza Metro Station, she melded her experiences with her father's influence.
"Design wise, I wanted the mural to have a contemporary feel and also give a nod to the Chicanx mural legacy. I wanted the objects of significance to have a graphic feel, so I created small supercuts of all of them, using a knife and black paper. I enlarged the papercuts, traced them onto the mural panels and painted them using flat colors," Romero says.
Inspired by Mexican oil cloth designs, she chose a monarch butterfly motif because it "represents migration and the plight of Mexican and Central American immigrants making their way to the United States and East Los Angeles," Romero says. "The [butterflies] are also a symbol of global warming and ecological destruction, as their populations have been decimated in recent years." The mural nods to Boyle Heights' Japanese and Jewish residents with a teapot and a loaf of challah.
Working in her backyard studio, Romero spent four-and-a-half years on the project, painting two 8' x 12' panels at a time. Each panel, which is made of honeycomb aluminum, weighed approximately 300 pounds and required a crew to move. She finished the final panels in mid-2020 and the mural was installed in December 2020.
"Sonia Romero's 'Hecho a Mano' is imbued with emotion, giving a nod to the Chicanx mural legacy and embracing the rich cultural diversity of Los Angeles. Sonia has beautifully added herself to the annals of muralism in Los Angeles," says Rojas-Williams.
Romero, who has two young children, has no plans to slow down. She's working on a mosaic tile mural, "El Sereno Serape," for a playground in (where else?) El Sereno.
"I knew I had to design something that had impact from a vehicle driving around the corner as well as from a pedestrian standpoint. The sarape motif is visually striking from a distance and when you get close to the tiles, you will be able to see repeating patterns of the people, history and landscape of El Sereno woven into each vertical stripe," she says.
Like much of her previous work, the design unites past and present. "I like the sarape/zarape as a motif because it brings to mind traditional weavings from Mexico and Central America, but I also see it a lot in pop culture in Los Angeles, from graduation sashes to baseball caps to keychains."
Most recently, Romero was commissioned by FX and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts to paint a mural on the southwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street celebrating the TV series Mayans M.C.
"I was inspired by the powerful character of Adelita, played by actress Carla Barrata, and her cross border relationship with Angel, played by Clayton Cardenas," Romero says. "I incorporated the bougainvillea motif as a nod to Latinx culture, our relationship with Mexico and for its prevalence in Echo Park, where this mural is located."
Not only is Romero a fan of the show, she lives near the site of the mural. In fact, it's next to the pizzeria where she and her family often ate during her childhood.
Finished on March 17, it required her quickest turnaround ever. Romero designed it in two days and executed the project in two weeks. The mural may also be her most ephemeral. It will stay up for only a month.
These days, Romero is busy researching a commission for the city of Westminster. "I come up with my concepts based on the logistics of the space and my take on the community surrounding the location," she says.
From Pacoima To The World
In 2013, shortly after public murals had once again been legalized in the city of Los Angeles, Kristy Sandoval showed up at the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Bradley Avenue. Amid Pacoima's blazing summer heat, she spent two weeks painting an almost 30-foot high image of a woman with blue hair releasing butterflies and parrots into the wild. Set against a yellow backdrop and incorporating a window as the cage, "Decolonized" was a transformative mural for her.
"It reflects the transitions I was going through in embracing indigenous culture, rituals and beliefs into my life," Sandoval says. At the time, she was reading a lot of Gloria Anzaldua and spending time in Sylmar at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, a bookstore and gallery run by bestselling author Luis Rodriguez and his wife, Trini Rodriguez.
"Finding spaces like Tia Chucha's and meeting Luis and Trini were a huge contributing factor to this discovery and transformation/healing," Sandoval says.
The piece was a labor of love and Sandoval imbued it with her experiences growing up as the child of Mexican immigrants. "Being raised in the U.S. and the beliefs and conditioning that came from it was being challenged. I was enjoying the discovery and connection to my roots. And so I felt decolonized," she says.
Rojas-Williams thinks the mural, which put Sandoval on the map, resonates with a generation of artists wrestling with many of the same issues -- rootlessness and the legacies of colonization.
"The butterflies not only symbolized immigration reform and the strong energy of the female community in the Valley but muralists finally being set free to paint murals legally once again, thus giving birth to the current mural renaissance in Los Angeles," Rojas-Williams says.
"Decolonized" also turned out to be a crucial moment for Pacoima. When Sandoval began walking up and down Van Nuys Boulevard, knocking on doors and asking business owners if she could paint murals on their buildings, some were wary. When several said yes, it started a chain reaction. One of the first was the barber shop Stylesville, at the corner of Pala Avenue. Sandoval painted a portrait of activist Assata Shakur and next to it she wrote, "A Womyn's Place is in the Struggle."
The significance wasn't lost on local historians. Pacoima was once the largest African American neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, and Stylesville is one of last vestiges of that era. The owner of the shop was thrilled with the results. Those early murals kickstarted the transformation of this corridor in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Known as the Mural Mile, the three-mile stretch of Van Nuys Boulevard between Arleta Avenue and Glenoaks Boulevard now has nearly three dozen murals, most of which were created during the last eight years. Sandoval is responsible for several of them but other artists have also made their mark on the neighborhood -- the HOODsisters, Erica Friend, JP Reyes, Manny Velazquez, the GR818ers and Hector, Levi and Sarah Ponce.
Once the main cruising drag of the San Fernando Valley, Van Nuys Boulevard had become sleepier in recent years. "We changed the face and reputation of Pacoima with the Mural Mile, from a place where folks would be deterred from visiting to a place where sold out mural tours were being guided down our great street," Sandoval says.
Her contributions include California poppies on a medical building, a portrait of her grandmother on the side of a small office, a mural emblazoned with quotes from Gloria Anzaldua and a portrait of Tongva medicine woman Toypurina, who helped organize a rebellion at Mission San Gabriel in 1785. Other muralists have added modern icons, such as actor Danny Trejo and musician Richie Valens (both of whom are Pacoima natives), to the street.
Sandoval, 38, studied at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco then returned to Southern California in 2005. Inspired by the murals she had seen in San Francisco's Mission District, she wanted to do something similar in Pacoima. She started teaching after-school art classes around the San Fernando Valley and volunteering at Tia Chucha's. By 2008, Sandoval had exhibited work at several art shows and started painting murals.
"Growing up in the San Fernando Valley has always influenced my work. It's a part of who I am and how I was raised," she says. The success of her Pacoima murals has enabled her to expand beyond the Valley.
Her 2017 piece, "Nevertheless... They Persisted," at the University of Laverne, features a sacred heart that represents, in Sandoval's words, "the transformative power of divine love."
On Slauson Avenue in South L.A., Sandoval collaborated with photographer Brianna Nakatani on a massive mural that spotlights fatherhood by featuring the faces of neighborhood men. Councilwoman Nury Martinez commissioned Sandoval to paint a mural in Sun Valley honoring motherhood, a personal project for Sandoval, who has a 9-year-old daughter.
In the last 15 years, she has painted more than 50 murals including one in New Orleans and two in Istanbul, Turkey.
After a whirlwind seven years, the pandemic has forced Sandoval to ease up but she hasn't stopped. Horrified at the way COVID-19 was pummeling Pacoima and the East San Fernando Valley, she launched the "Cuidate Pacoima" ("Mask Up Pacoima") campaign in September 2020. Working with Desi Sanchez, Juan Pablo Reyes and Manny Velasquez, she added masks to several of her existing Van Nuys Boulevard murals. They also created six smaller works featuring mask-wearing figures near the Department of Water and Power Building in Van Nuys.
"The murals include safety messaging for our community as reminders to keep a safe physical distance. They also honor essential workers including the postal service and medical workers," Sandoval says.
She has painted other murals in the past year, including a cactus landscape with the quote "love never fails" on an upholstery shop in Highland Park and a portrait of United States Women's National Soccer Team player Alex Morgan at Delano Park in Van Nuys. The latter was commissioned by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
Sandoval also works full time as the Programs Director for Casa Esperanza, a Panorama City nonprofit where she implements art classes, writing workshops and other programming for neighborhood youth. She sees her art and her work at Casa Esperanza as inextricably linked. "Speaking up, organizing and making things happen is how we create change in our communities," she says.
Reenvisioning her neighborhood has helped Sandoval reenvision herself. "With every mural I paint," she says, "I, myself, am transformed."