Mural Interruptus

The shared protests of the Sandow Birk mural that will not be installed at the new Hollenbeck Station, as LA Eastside noted. Now according to Eastside Group Publications (EGP), both residents and LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division want to know why the Department of Cultural Affairs chose Birk, and why the community was excluded from the selection process of qualified artists.

“Typically the process does not involves members of the community,” said Felicia Filer, Public Arts Director for the Department of Cultural Affairs, at a community meeting held last week.

EGP reports the process began in 2002 when  Cultural Affairs and the developers for the new Hollenbeck Police Station discussed the scope of the project.   In standard operating art procedure, 5,000 bid applications were mailed to artists,  then 156 applications were reviewed before Birk was awarded the project. After a series of approval stages in front of City Council, Cultural Affairs, that also included meetings with the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, concerns were raised and according to EGP, were addressed before seeking approval from The Los Angeles Public Art Commission.

After months of public outcry, last weeks meeting was no surprise.  EGP writes on the responses:

“Your process is flawed,” said community activist Monica Harmon. “You insulted and disrespected this community [Boyle Heights]. But this community is proud and I don’t believe a single word the artist has said,” Harmon said, referring to Birk’s written statement read during the meeting. The artist did not attend the meeting because he was out of the country, according to Cultural Affairs.

“I find it perplexing to see and hear comments now that this project was realized without listening to the community or the police, especially coming from Hollenbeck, whose officers were consulted at length and whose requests were honored,” writes Birk, who added he is confused by some of the comments regarding his artistic intentions and interpretations of the work.


Hollenbeck Station’s new police captain, Tina Nieto, said she supports the community and won’t allow the mural to be installed as is at the station.

EGP also reports that District 14’s Huizar plans to meet with Cultural Affairs and stated “It’s unfair to waste $195,000 and not have a cultural component in the community. ” he said, adding  “Boyle Heights has an enormous history and a brilliant future, this mural does not reflect that aspect. It has a gloomy feeling.”

For those who know Birk’s work, it is not far from what he’s done before. Supporters of the mural include LA Eastside publisher El Chavo who wrote:

“It seems that when ignored communities get some attention they want it to be only “positive” or boosterism, as a sort of balance against the bad news of shootings and crimes that tends to be the main form of coverage. You need to have them both in order for it to be real, and from the little I’ve seen of the design and the description, I think this mural would have worked well in portraying the community. No doubt something safe and boring will be going up instead.

In this case, it may be a matter of a sensitive location, an outpost of distrust for some, requires a certain message.  It does bring up the question; Is the purpose of today’s mural only  to represent a community as they see themselves? Just what is it suppose to say?

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21 thoughts on “Mural Interruptus

  1. I’ve curated a similar tile mural, public art project that’s being realized later this year in San Pedro, and I can tell you that the process of getting a mural approved is lengthy and that dozens and dozens of critical eyes pass over it. A certain portion of the community hates public art, seeing it as a general waste, and another portion will always loathe whatever gets approved. There’s simply no way to please everyone.

    Sandow Birk is one of the most important artists in California and having his work at Hollenbeck is a huge opportunity for Boyle Heights to contribute to the cultural life of the whole region and to acquire a tremendous cultural asset. I would murder to curate a similar project with Birk anywhere, anytime.

  2. Huizar the art critic talks about BH’s past and future but ignores how the mural represents the present, unless that’s what he means by “gloomy feeling”.
    So what’s gonna happen now? Everyone’s gotta agree on something? Right . . .

  3. Content aside I think it’s bullshit that they couldnt hire one of the hundreds of muralists from Boyle Heights. I like Birk myself, but stop wasting money on rich ass white boys with no roots in the community.

    For the amount of money they gave him for wine tours and french cheese I couldve painted 10 murals and done a good amount of proactive gang intervention in the process. Good job out of touch elitist cultural affairs, another good oportunity missed.

  4. Art – I guarantee that a ton of local artists were looked at during the process, but Birk’s proposal won out in the end. I can tell you from direct experience that restricting public art projects to only community participants is a dead end. Public art projects are not only opportunities to boost local talents, but they are also opportunities to bring great talent into your locality.

    The cost of producing this mural probably occupies about 80-90% of the budget. Birk actually receives an artist’s fee that’s a small portion of the project’s cost, and if he’s fabricating the tiles himself, he’s doing a tremendous amount of work and certainly deserves to be well paid for his time, as do the other craftspeople who make projects like this possible.

  5. Sorry marshall but I’d have to disagree. I do a lot of murals in poorer areas and part of what makes the art better is the inclusion of local residents, something I can tell you from personal experience myslef. Plus there is no need to make the RFP solely for locals, but there should be some extra points given to local artists when a project is located in a concentration of poverty where talented folks are much likelier to end up working at a wharehouse rather than making $50k painting.

    In the LA art scene there seems to be this doublestandard where a lot of crappy but weirdo artists are deemde genius and a lot of extremely talented working class brown folks are disregarded, and this project could have helped change that a bit. Plus this is going on a police station and using the art project and funds to help some “at-risk” cholo make money with their art seems contextually perfect as well as much more sustainable. Unless of course you feel that there arent talented artists in East Los, which is another story. I know tons of vatos with much more talent than most art schools and galleries, and they still live in their mom’s back house because their dysfunctional behavior limits their marketability.

  6. “he shared protests of the Sandow Birk mural that will not be installed at the new Hollenbeck Station, as LA Eastside noted. Now according to Eastside Group Publications (EGP), both residents and LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division want to know why the Department of Cultural Affairs chose Birk, and why the community was excluded from the selection process of qualified artists.” Ed

    Exactly. I mean really. I’m not saying this Birk does or does not have talent, but do you think they would go to East LA or South Central in order to get someone to make art on the westside?

    Heck no. It’s odd how communities of color are just thought of as tools or inspiration from the “mainstream” art community. To be put in a ghetto genre of not “real” are and trotted out during certain months to only be put away after the month is over or after we’re not as popular. It’s crap. Like to me the LA River FoLAR mess was crapola. That should have been a mural by local artists from the area not some ego driven, macho bs with a headliner from Sweden who works for Coca Cola.


  7. This whole argument is placing the blame on the LA Cultural Affairs Dept. and the artist, both of whom seemed to do their job. If you remember or if you know anything about how murals get made, it is REQUIRED BY LAW that public money to be spent on the arts are OPEN TO ALL APPLICANTS. It is illegal to limit the money to only one neighborhood, not to mention very narrow minded and short sighted. The application was open to everyone and the Cultural Affairs Dept – foreseeing this sort of trouble – made an EXTRAORDINARY EFFORT to let all artists in the area know about the project and encourage them to apply. It doesn’t say anywhere how many local artists did apply, but if you read the reports, there were 56 applicants for the project and Birk was selected from all of those after lengthy interviews that involved NOT ONLY Cultural Affairs but representatives of the LAPD and some COMMUNITY VOLUNTEERS, who all agreed that Birk was the best artist for the job.
    I also read that Birk did extensive collaborating with the offices of Hollenbeck Station and with community members that wanted to be involved. Now, when the mural is finished, the community members who were too lazy to get involved in their community when it mattered – and those artist who were too lazy to apply for a project in their own neighborhood – are all complaining. Typical.
    Its a sad day for Boyle Heights, for Los Angeles, and for America when what seems to be a very beautiful project is crushed before it can even be seen.

    Oh, and the flag…….its the flag of THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES!! Don’t you even know where you live!!???

  8. I’ve got no problem with Birk, I just think it’s odd that in this city of lots of ethnic groups the same people (and the socio-economic class background) seem to be getting picked for art projects over and over again and oddly they seem to all look very similar all be intermarried and all went to similar or the same freakin school.

    Lets talk about democracy. Why do all of the people who get grants seem to all know each other? Why does everyone on the board seem to know who all of these people are already? Do you really believe its random Greg? Dude I wish it were random, I really wish who gets what project was totally fair, but we all it is totally freakin not.

    It’s not about art, its about who you know, not saying this is Birk’s fault or his art his bad or anything like that, but too many times artist of color get shut out the game because we’re not married to the right asshole.

    We did stuff like work in college so the whole intern thing and networking thing many of us get to kind of late, but is that taken into account, I’m going to think not. So the old boy club continues even if that old boy club now has tattoos.

    What percentage of art grants are received by people who went to Otis and Cal Arts (or are married or teach there) in comparison to everyone else, I bet you’d find it a bit odd. I bet you would find it isn’t as democratic and open and fair as it’s painted to be.


  9. I applied and I know of at least 4 other artists from the Boyle Heights area who applied and were not interviewed despite our legnthy art resume’s and experience with community murals, so you are wrong greg. and to imply that we are lazy because we werent selected is plain stupid.

  10. It is odd that the only time people want to have a nice civilized conversation on race and fairness is when it has to do with defending their rich successful friends (or people they want to be their friends.)

    The artists in various shades of brown are just lazy. That’s the problem.

    What do you want to bet the people who say these kinds of things view themselves as liberal? All artists think they are liberal even the ones that work in advertising.

    So we are saying illegal, closed minded things, because we challenge the bs art system?

    The art system that only lets people from Otis, Cal Arts and Art Center play or married to a person who went there. The system that only lets people with rich parents play.

    We are unfair and illegal and lazy and too stupid to have not picked richer parents.

    I guess that’s what the British thought about Gandhi.


  11. Everyone is upset that someone of color was not chosen for the project. Is this all coming down to a race issue? “Art” says that 4 people from Boyle Heights applied and did not make it through to the interview stage. 4 people from the something like 500 applicants that they had – that’s less than 1%. That means that 99% of the artists to apply to the project weren’t from the neighborhood. Only 4 of the supposedly many, many artists in Boyle Heights that were supposedly good for the project bothered to apply. Is that the City of L.A.s fault? Is that the selected artist’s fault? Or is that those artists-that-wanted-the-project-but-didn’t-apply’s fault? This should be a big lesson – next time there’s a public art project – APPLY FOR IT! And tell all your artist friends in the neighborhood to apply for it too! Maybe more than 1% of the applicants will be local, and that would be amazing!

    As for the comments by Browne about Birk and where he worked while he was in school or who he married or how much money he has or if his parents are rich or not – I don’t know him that well and I wouldn’t speculate. I did read that he speaks Spanish and studied in Mexico City, paid for by the Mexican government. But the rest – marriage, work, income, family – those are all assumptions, it seems, unless Browne knowns him personally. And they seem like assumptions based on his skin color.

    Isn’t that called prejudice?

    I do know from reading that Birk lived in the Crenshaw district for many years and also lived in East Hollywood. That doesn’t seem too rich and too white for me. Plus, his career seems to have been made through projects that collaborated with graff writers, that criticized the city social systems, that documented the riots and the gang wars – it seems like he’s known for a career making works about the forgotten classes and areas of the city. How is that playing the “art game”?

    If there’s BS in “the system”, you should challenge it by doing something to change it – like making work that is interesting and intelligent – not just ranting. That’s what Ghandi did. I guess its easier to rant, though.

    But can’t we get back to talking about the art work itself?

  12. You’ve got to be kidding me Greg. We didn’t make this about race (or more so class) by picking the people of the same background over and over and over again.

    This isn’t about Birk anyway. I don’t give a crap if he slummed it awhile in the Crenshaw area. What does the Crenshaw area and Mexico City have to do with Boyle Heights? Absolutely nothing.

    This is about the fact that lets be honest most public art is…how can I put this nicely, not all that artful and you could at least make an effort to make it about the community. I hate public art, hate it in regards to the aesthetics of it, but I love it in regards to bringing people together and to making the art world larger.

    If it were a rich old white man who did art and lived in Boyle Heights, I would think he would have been a better choice than Birk even if Birk was black, chincana, had two vaginas and was a transgendered lesbian with one leg.

    Now back to you calling me and Art prejudice.

    We don’t have the power to give grants. We don’t have the power to give someone a job. We don’t have the power to make the false gods of the city say yes or no on a project. We don’t know people at the LA Times or LA Weekly, so if we do try to do something and it goes wrong we can’t cry and whine like a 13 year old and get our side published over and over again in 20,000 mainstream papers (yes I’m referring to the FoLAR mural mess.)

    Want to point the finger at someone in regards to being prejudice and monolithic, point to the bullshit art scene of LA, where people who suck ass (look at downtown, look at chinatown, I’m looking at bad art right now on 5th and main as I type this at the Royal Cafe, I want to vomit it’s so bad) get shows and write ups for being rich assholes and for being nice.

    I hate nice artists. Nice artist means you probably suck ass.

    Hey Greg, I’m not a visual artist, I simply like art and I’m sick of the art scene in LA, being about a scene instead of about art. New York can play this nepotism bs game, but LA, the quality of the work here sucks way too much to play this the sister of the wife of this writer of this art critic. In LA the art critic at the LA Weekly actually had an art show in Chinatown, a solo show and it was written about in the LA Weekly. Is that not the biggest bit of bullshit that you’ve ever seen in your life. No shame in the nepotism here, no shame at all.

    There are people here who actually have talent and are not given a chance and that is a tragedy. I’m being short changed as a patron of the art, who has spent more money than a person who has the small bank account that I do should spend on art. I want a real LA art collection, not an orgy of so-and-so’s friends.

    Ranting. You were the one that started with the typical, what the heck did that mean that “typical” statement of yours. What kind of response where you trying to warrant with that?

    Want to talk about art? Who do you like Greg? What is your favorite gallery in LA and which gallery do find a piece of crap or is being negative not community building enough…odd how everyone wants it to be about the art except when it’s about talking crap about their artless, but well written about friends.


  13. Greg, I said 4 artists THAT I PERSONALLY KNOW applied for the mural in BH, there could have been hundreds of artist submissions from BH for all I know. All of them have extensive portfolios and are good artists, none received any interview. There are dozens if not hundreds of artists from Boyle Heights, East LA and all places chicano who I would consider more appropriate candidates to do a mural about the Latino street life in Boyle Heights, please do not try to misrepresent my words in order to prove your pointless point. BTW, they dont even have to be Latino, be it a white dude from El Monte or an Asian from East LA, I see the art that comes from those previed an insider perspective to usually create much better compositions.

    I also see the use of funds for a new police station in Boyle heights talking about chicano street life having better use by averting some artistic cholo into an art career as a much wiser option than giving some rich guy more money to create his interpretation of a community he is not a part of. I like art that is contextually connected to its subject, and I think it is much more beneficial to create a project that has multiple positives than some willy nilly choice of whatever wealthy entitled bohemian who has name appeal. The PD or whoever chose Birk screwed up on an oportunity to create art directly connected to the community and possibly being a catalyst for positive change at an individual level.

    Their choice also falls in line with the stereotype and dysfunctional precedence of ignoring the plethora of local working class minority talent for some wealthy blonde artist who has money coming out of their ears. That shit happens all the time, and has been for decades now. It is a big reason why a lot of working class people abhor the artsy fartsy crowd, kind of like the “armchair liberal” notion in an artisitc context, and it sucks ass for folks like me and the million other young poor Latinos/blacks/asians/ poor whites who would like some equal footing in a scene that is total biased and self serving.

    And BTW, spare us the bullshit of noting how this artist choice could have been much better had it been from local grounds as somehow being prejudiced against rich white fools paid ridiculously and smothered with attention because of their pedigree, which in itself is prejudiced (but I guess you cannot see that because it might draw some admittance of privelege or personal guilt). Your actually falling in line with the stereotype of narcissisitc entitled white art douche so full of themself and arrogant that they cant admit they are wrong and are overly sensitive about an issue that might cast them, or their kind, as wrong or overly priveleged. Its the modern pussified version of segregationist hillbillies yelling “what about my rights” because their housing project is being integrated with negroes; i.e. self serving, totally ridiculous and illogical, and an overall bad representation of your ethnicity and culture as well as demographic. Go be kitschy and “real” living in my barrio and downtown I lived in since childhood, prancing around in the “true grit” of the urban decay I had to endure because your parents couldnt stand to live near us, intermingle and be viewed as “being onthe same level” of my community and culture. I may be getting mean right now but I am sick of this narcissistic rich boy bullshit, and I aint even bringing race into that one.

  14. And greg, you wanna stop folks like me and Brownski from loathing your bullshit comments? How about stopping the rich boy artist with no depth jerkfest by hiring a few nonwhite or working class folks to do art? You obviously are part of the insider scene of artistic elites, how about letting a few of us “others” in too? Plus it’ll make you look badass to your waspy frineds for having the balls to hang with us and your new appreciative working class friends will love oyu to death and crack a bottle over someone’s head the next time some coifish sleeved toughguy gives you guff at a gallery opening, trust me, I played that position before as a teen in the graffiti world. Which is why I dont do it now and prefer to just be poor, unrecognized and paint with barrio kids in the gutter.

  15. I like Sandow Birk’s art, but why is he so respected? His stuff is derivative of Mad Magazine and R. Crumb. It isn’t even “LOL” funny. It’s more “mona lisa smile” funny.

    I found this on his website: “Birk has got at the parts of L.A. that recall Piranesi, not David Hockney, the sinister noir terrain of freeway overpasses and cuttings and drainage ditches that create a stacked-up, tangled vertical landscape far from the flat, sunshiny L.A. of the usual iconography.”
    – London Review of Books

    LOL – please.

    Birk owes his career to misguided city planning fads of the early 20th century!

  16. Well after all this discussion it looks like its all under the bridge. It seems like the mural project is still going on or going to go up soon. There’s an updated posting on the artist’s website that lists a ton of people who are supporting the project as well as LAPD officers that are involved now. I guess the neighborhood’s turning around on it. At least we’ll finally get to see what it looks like.

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