Whitewashed without Notice, Judy Baca’s Iconic Freeway Mural Is Being Fully Restored

An important piece of Chicana art will return to public view, but that doesn’t fix the city’s lax public art preservation policy

Artist Judy Baca’s murals have defined the landscape of Los Angeles since the 1970s, when she first installed her large-scale works in some of L.A.’s most public places.

A lifelong Chicana activist, Baca, 73, grew up in Watts and Pacoima. She participated in the Chicano Moratorium (losing a teaching job over it) and apprenticed as a painter at La Tallera, the mural workshop founded by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the founders of the leftist Mexican muralism movement alongside Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. Baca’s work is a profoundly feminist take on Mexican muralism, emphasizing accessibility to the working class.

Baca created a revolutionary public mural program that brought in local kids in underprivileged neighborhoods to paint the murals alongside her. Her best known work is The Great Wall Of Los Angeles, which plastered a stretch of the L.A. River along Coldwater Canyon with a revolutionary timeline of L.A. history, replete with horrific events like the Zoot Suit Riots and Japanese internment camps.

Throughout her career, Baca has struggled against L.A.’s attempts to censor public art depicting realities like racist police violence. She has also fought against the sexist notion that large-scale art is somehow masculine with works like Uprising of the Mujeres, an astonishing expressionist work she did 40 years ago that depicts an indigenous woman— based on Baca’s grandmother—leading workers out of the fields; it was recently purchased by he Smithsonian. Baca is also artistic director of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) in Venice.

In advance of the 1984 Olympics, Baca was among the muralists commissioned to create works to line L.A.’s freeways. She painted the iconic mural Hitting the Wall, depicting a woman running the marathon (’84 was the first year women were allowed to run), under an overpass on the 110 through downtown L.A. It adorned that wall for 35 years, until early 2019, when it was painted over without notice.

When we spoke to Baca late last year, she was deciding whether to sue the city for its negligent treatment of the work or to pay to restore the mural with money out of her own pocket. Yesterday, it was announced that Metro had fessed up to the damages and is, along with Caltrans, supporting SPARC in fully restoring the mural.

Still, Baca sees her work as part and parcel of the city’s—and the Olympics’—apathy toward public art.

Hitting the Wall is just one of many public artworks that are at risk of disappearing,” a press release from SPARC reads. “SPARC is advocating for better policies and procedures that prevent the defacement of public art, whether intentional or negligent.”

Late last year, we talked to Baca about art, the Olympics, sexism, and the whitewashing of Los Angeles.

Could tell the story of your 1984 mural and what happened to it earlier this year? 

Bob Campbell was in charge of organizing the art presence for LA84. He was the president of CalArts at the time. He really thought the signature of Los Angeles was murals. And of course, at that time it was, before we had the total demise of murals in Los Angeles. At that time artists could be commissioned to do work that had a relationship to the community. They could stand on the street for periods of time and put a piece of art up without getting arrested or having to throw up pieces with spray cans, because that was the only way to get something up. There was a wonderful body of work in Los Angeles of murals, and they were in every neighborhood of the city. We’ve lost probably 60 percent of them, if not more, from really bad city policies and absolute disregard for the work coming out of particularly communities of color.

Campbell wanted to do ten murals on the freeway system. I actually advised against it. I said, “The freeways are no-man’s lands. They’re the jurisdiction of the state, and nobody has ownership over them.” In other words, people don’t feel a relationship to a segment of the freeway as they would in a neighborhood. We can’t spend our time interacting with a community to create something. They asked us to select sites along the 110 and Hollywood freeways. Ten artists were commissioned and I was one of them. All of the works are lost now except I think one or two. Alonzo Davis’s, Richard Wyatt’s was lost. Roderick Sykes’s was lost.

When you say lost, you mean painted over?

Painted over. So, the Olympic Organizing Committee commissioned this work, and we had to produce it in a huge hurry. We got $15,000 apiece, which was not really even enough to cover $3,000 worth of barriers, the massive amount of insurance we had to insure the population against having an accident because they’re watching us paint. I spent nine months on the Hollywood Freeway producing work, and I produced the only work of the ten directly related to the Olympics.

I studied the history and legacy of minority athletes who did not have financial backup and support, yet became gold medal winners and amazing champions. 1984 was the very first time women were running in the Olympics for the marathon. Up until that point if a woman were running in the marathon, she’d be tackled.

Everybody was recognizing that women could possibly exceed male times. If women had the same type of support men had since childhood, they had the stamina to be really extraordinary marathon runners. So I started studying them. I met with all the marathon runners, and then I produced a 30-foot woman runner. I used marble to create a giant stone wall on the freeway on the underpass of the 4th Street exit. Then I created a method of transmuting the wall, being able to go through it. The whole notion of hitting the wall when you hit the 24th mile and you’re at the last part and you’re just running on pure will. It became a metaphor for me of women overcoming tremendous obstacles to become great athletes, to become anything really, including mural painters. And so that’s what the figure is about. She comes through the wall, and there’s a reference to the Tower of Babel, and it is crumbling. And that’s the representation of male notions of female.

At this particular moment, it’s even more important because of the #MeToo movement, because of how clear misogyny has been in this president’s administration. How people who are sexual predators both in the athletic system—the whole notion of how young girls become prey of their coaches and trainers. It took incredible agony to put that piece up. It took me nine months on that freeway, and it was a terrible place to work.

My mural was up for over 20 years. At a certain point LAPD Chief Bratton created [a program to eradicate graffiti]. So the state of California—Caltrans—decided they would hire subcontractors to remove graffiti, and they did it all over the city within 24 hours of vandalization. There were subcontractors getting these big perks from the council people. All this money would have been better spent had it gone to training youth to become the artists they wanted to become rather than criminalization of graf arts. They would not take a tiny bit of this money and do a maintenance program for murals, in which they did a more thoughtful removal rather than a paint-over. So when a mural got graffiti’d, it stayed up longer because there was no plan for the removal of that graffiti from that mural.

So graf artists started vandalizing the murals of the freeway. If you tagged a regular wall it would be removed within 24 hours, but if you tagged the mural, it stayed up. So that’s why my mural got tagged, along with the deep-seated misogyny and the hatred of women, period, when you imagine a 30-foot woman athlete, dominating that site and these young, macho boys deciding they would paint over her legs so she couldn’t run through that wall. And then, this becomes the most ridiculous part, suddenly Caltrans says we’re going to paint over it if you don’t remove it. You artists are now in charge of maintaining these public works, commissioned by the IOC for the Olympics—these are now your responsibility to maintain at your own expense.

olympics murals
Alonzo Davis’ mural on the Harbor Freeway near 4th Street South in 1984. At the time, Caltrans indicated that there was “insufficient public support for such a project on a permanent basis.”

Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

That’s insane.

That’s what they did. So at one point, there was a total restoration of all of the works and it was run by the Department of Cultural Affairs, which, once again, did not create any maintenance on it. They restored them. My piece was completely restored from top to bottom. And at that point I made this great decision of developing my own coating system that could remove the graffiti with water. So, I had been maintaining that work until Caltrans, who denied that they did it, painted over it. So, I had been maintaining that work, when it was painted over completely, Caltrans denied they did it. In the long discovery of it, and the incredible public outrage over it, it turned out that Metro has a contract with Caltrans to do graffiti cleanup and Metro painted over it with so many coats of paint that they created a far more difficult removal than you could ever imagine.

If you go to the site now, you can see all these little windows where we tested to see if the overpaint could be removed, and at the same time removing the graffiti without ruining the original piece. It’s very complicated, but we think we can do it. It’s a difficult removal, but we have been doing this kind of work since we did the full restoration of the Great Wall. And we’ve been removing graffiti from multiple sites around the city. We have a plan that could maintain murals, but not a dollar of public money has been put into it. They’d rather put it in prisons. It’s will, isn’t it? The decisions that are being made are about not having the will, to consider public art, to consider these murals significant elements in a public environment defining Los Angeles.

The city doesn’t seem too interested in preserving the things that are the fundamental elements of Los Angeles, the things that make it a good or interesting or artistic place.

I so agree. We have not had a cultural affairs department with the strength and leadership that actually stands up for these things and will fight on the council floor. They’ve become more interested in just preserving themselves.

You seem very aware of the way the Olympics uses art to wash their intentions. They clearly don’t care about the art. To me it seems like a very direct connection between the way they treat the artists to the way they treat the athletes. Did you make that connection when the Larry Nassar story was breaking?

Yes, but I’ve watched it for women athletes forever. You can see it in the disbursement of money in the university system—what the women athletes get, and the scholarships that support them. You see that in professional athletes as well. As women advance their prowess as athletes, they’re not given the same support to even go to the Olympics, the sponsors don’t line up the same way for women as they do for men athletes with very few exceptions.

Do you feel like the same is true of women in the art world?

Yes, of course. Women as a whole, we comprise a tiny percentage of what would be considered “artists of substance” or “artists of value” or “successful artists.” I can see from my own life and work—as a public artist with big scale—this is a field for men. You can see it in the valuation of my artwork. The comparison between my male counterparts who aren’t nearly as accomplished, the value of their work would be considered higher than mine. I’ve been dealing with discriminatory practices forever, in terms of how you get commissions, in terms of how the work is valued, the opportunities—who gets to be at the table?

…The Smithsonian recently purchased a historical work of mine I did 40 years ago, a piece called The Uprising of the Women. It was my response to my counterparts in the male Latino world who were painting bare-breasted women with bullets across their chests, revolutionaries. So I painted this incredible indigenous woman who was based on my grandmother, the type of woman I knew who was bursting out of the fields. And it’s spiritual—she’s partially in this world, and partially in another, and she’s leading people out of the fields and pointing out the disparity of what they’re paid.

You live in Venice, which has completely changed from an artists’ neighborhood to an enclave for the rich.

We’ve run out the artist community from Venice, the whole reason people started moving there. It’s been destroyed. Nobody can be here anymore. Welcome to SnapChat and Google and people paying $9,000 rent. I couldn’t live here if I hadn’t been here and if I hadn’t had the wherewithal to buy a cheap little house back in the day.

Los Angeles is this place that has this tension between these powerful elites and everyone else, always. To me the thing that made it good always was that culture does spring up despite every attempt to crush it.

I’ll tell you the truth. The immigrant communities have kept Los Angeles alive. Look at the street vendors of Broadway. They’ve tried so many times to just pull out everybody and create these office buildings and high-end money-making buildings out of historical sites of Los Angeles. Immigrant people have created a subculture, and they’ve provided what the people need—elotes, paletas, tamales, inexpensive clothes. There was a place near Mariachi Plaza—I’m not sure if this still happens—where you can drive through and Mariachis will come to your car window and sing to you. The great thing about Los Angeles is its diversity, its immigrant communities who with nothing have kept it vital and filled with life and color.

I hope the woman runs through the wall.

I hope she does too. Yeah, I was torn between wanting to see her back there doing her job, reminding people that women are powerful forces and should be leading athletic and other achievements. The other is maybe the city just has to suffer the loss and I need to lose the piece. I don’t know. My heart is torn.

I grew up right by The Great Wall of Los Angeles. I thought, oh what a funny place to put a mural in the basin here. I loved that it was accessible, not in a museum. You’re right about murals being the lifeblood of L.A.  

I purposely put it in a sewer. A giant statement from a humble place.

RELATED: One of L.A.’s Most Iconic Chicano Murals Is Being Displayed in a Museum for the First Time Ever

Stay up to date with everything you need to know about L.A. by following us on Facebook.