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Metro Admits To Painting Over Historic LA Mural

Metro said that a contractor painted over the mural because he couldn't see it under all the graffiti. (Photo courtesy Metro)
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Judy Baca's 100-foot wide mural, "Hitting the Wall," has graced an otherwise unremarkable spot on the 110 freeway near the 4th Street exit for the last 35 years. In it, a female runner with her arms outstretched breaks through a finish line and takes down a brick wall with her, revealing the L.A. skyline behind.

The image of triumph wasn't just another (technically illegal) piece of street art. Far from it.

It was commissioned for the 1984 games by the International Olympic Organizing Committee and designed to depict a national milestone -- the first time women were allowed to compete in the games.

The mural was protected by the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act, which was designed to shelter recognized public art from damage, destruction or defacement -- and it was copyrighted and registered with the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs.

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Which is why the artist was shocked when she found out, via social media, that her historic public work had been completely painted over by what looked like an official city entity.

"I am very very disheartened that this was destroyed during National Women's History Month," she said. "There was a time before this, in which any woman who ran in the marathon would be tackled and stopped from running. When that mural was painted, it was the first time women could run. So that marks a significant event. It marks a significant time for women in America."

In accordance with the Visual Artists Rights Act, Baca should have received a 90-day notice if there was a plan to remove the mural, but neither the artist nor her staff say they got any such alert.

At first Baca, who is a professor emeritus at UCLA and the founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARK), blamed Caltrans for the whitewashing, saying she was considering legal action. Caltrans insisted that they had nothing to do with it.

"This is a 35-foot high mural," Baca told KPCC. "To put a coat of paint on that requires equipment and ladders and's just not possible that Caltrans would not be aware of this kind of a production. It was a major undertaking and expensive."

She said that covering a mural of that scale would cost thousands of dollars.

But on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) took full responsibility for the re-painting via a statement to KPCC/LAist, admitting that one of their abatement contractors had painted over it on February 26, because of what they describe as "extensive graffiti."

Sometime in March, the mural was tagged with huge black and white bubble-letters that covered most of it. That kind of vandalism wasn't uncommon, Baca told us. "On a regular basis, we cleaned it and restored it at our own expense."

But this time, the artist and her organization weren't able to remove the graffiti before Metro discovered it.

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"As part of the Freeway Beautification Program, Metro has been providing, through its contractor, supplemental landscaping, graffiti abatement and litter removal along this stretch of the 110 freeway," Metro's statement said. "Due to the extensive graffiti coverage on the mural, our contractor did not recognize that there was a mural under this section of wall. We apologize on behalf of our contractor and will move forward to resolve this matter with SPARC."

Even though Metro says it was one of their contractors who painted over the mural, they said they were only able to do so thanks to Caltrans' "right of way," which gives the department jurisdiction over the state's freeways.

That's why Baca assumed that Caltrans was the whitewashing culprit. She said that Caltrans has historically whited-out murals regularly.

"At one point their policy was that, if the mural was not cleaned by the artist within a 30-day period, they would basically do what they called a 'hibernation,'" she said. "This was a very offensive term...hibernating a mural essentially meant covering it. And they were trying to convince us that that actually meant preservation, but painting over anything like that is a very laborious act. It's expensive, it takes a great deal of time and makes it more difficult to restore."

"Hitting the Wall" was one of 10 murals commissioned for the 1984 games. In 2009, Baca says, the city of Los Angeles received a million dollar grant to restore them. And if she's right about the cost of whitewashing it, Metro just spent thousands of dollars (at least) to cover it up.

"This wasn't us asking Caltrans, 'Can we please get on this wall?,'" Baca said. "We were commissioned to produce this work...they were works for the public."

The 1984 project was all about portraying L.A. as a the mural capital of the world, she said. But because of these whitewashing policies from Metro and Caltrans, the city has never lived up to that title -- "Not by any stretch of the imagination," she says. "I would say that something like 60% of the legacy of Los Angeles murals has been lost because of very poor public policy."

Over time, various groups across the city were given contracts to remove graffiti within 24 hours of its creation, she explained, so taggers started spray-painting murals in an effort to have their messages stay up longer.

"Paint on that mural and it'll stay up there for a while. Paint on a blank wall and it'll be gone in 24 hours," said Baca.

That could be why her mural was initially targeted by taggers...and why the contractor, according to Metro, didn't realize there was a mural underneath.

"[This mural] needs to be back in the public space," Baca said. "And we need to plan a method of maintaining it and continuing to keep it clean and stopping the sort of misogynist acts of young male spray-can artists spraying over her legs, so that she can't run through that wall."

Now, Baca and her team will have to begin the process of restoring the mural that sits under layers of white paint and graffiti. They can do it, she says-- they've developed a process for restoration based on another iconic mural by the artist, the Great Wall in the San Fernando Valley. That usually involves blasting the graffiti with water-- but in this case, they'll have to do some testing, because she says "not only did they cover it up, they covered it up with multiple coats of paint."

Part of the "Great Wall of L.A.," painted by Judy Baca. It depicts the history of the Los Angeles area from 20,000 BC to the present day. (Photo by urban bamboo via Flickr Creative Commons)

Baca went to see the painted mural on Friday, but was undeterred.

"It's a very thick application over and over again, with a real determination to destroy the work," she said. "So if you remove one coat, you'll have to remove the next coat and then the next coat. But we think we can do it...we can get it back and that's our determination. We would really like to see this work come back."

Metro said they are committed to working with SPARC "to resolve this matter."

Baca says that she doesn't think many artists will volunteer to paint murals for the city during the 2028 Olympics, if this is how their work will be treated.

"Who would lend their talents to the to the amplification of a significant event," she asked, "only to see it destroyed or disrespected in such a profound way?"

Megan Erwin and Nick Roman contributed to this story.

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