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Bringing Murals to the Streets of One of LA’s Poorest Neighborhoods

LOS ANGELES — At the intersection of 48th Street and Wall Street in South Central Los Angeles, a homeless man pushes a cart filled with blankets and clothes.

Crisp and DjLu's mural for #SmileSouthCentral (all photos by the author for Hyperallerigic unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)
Crisp and DjLu’s mural for #SmileSouthCentral (all photos by the author for Hyperallerigic unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

LOS ANGELES — At the intersection of 48th Street and Wall Street in South Central Los Angeles, a homeless man pushes a cart filled with blankets and clothes. A nearby stop sign is tagged with white letters, while an old telephone booth covered in stickers stands near two cardboard boxes filled with trash. Bits of broken sidewalk give way to patches of untended grass. Flanking both sides of the phone are hand-painted signs that read “Robert’s Market” and “Kimberly Party Supply” — but the latter stands out because it abuts a mural bursting with red, yellow, and orange.

In the mural, a kangaroo hops towards a smiling child. A female figure near the animal looks out at the viewer confrontationally, while to her left more animals — a hedgehog, an owl — float around the colorful composition. Each figure is outlined in white, standing out against jagged lines that alternate in color. Small scissors and pineapples create another whimsical pattern that extends along the wall.

The bottom right corner of the mural contains text: #SmileSouthCentral. More than just a hashtag, this is the name of a project, created by curator Adam Ayala, that brings artists from a variety of backgrounds to South Central Los Angeles. The area is known for its high crime rate and has one of the lowest median household income rates in the city.

Art galleries aren’t common here. Neither are large murals. About two years ago, Ayala, who grew up in Hollywood and currently lives in South Central LA, began “starting up friendships” with artists and “exploring the city” to find out who might be interested in bringing public art to the area. He then spoke to business owners in his neighborhood, starting with a small store on Western Avenue and 48th Street. The owner was hesitant at first — mostly out of concern that locals wouldn’t respect the pieces — but eventually let Ayala coordinate the project.

ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL DAY IN SOUTH CENTRAL ______________________________________ Art by #septerhead FOR PROJECT #smilesouthcentral

A photo posted by #smilesouthcentral (@smilesouthcentral) on

Septerhed, one of the first participating artists, recalls Ayala approaching him while he was painting a storefront on Melrose Avenue, located in a much more affluent neighborhood where street artists often decorate the walls with their work. Septerhed was interested simply because Ayala mentioned the possibility of a wall (space is precious to street artists, who often battle for big spaces). He accepted the offer and began working in South Central, finding at first that locals “didn’t really seem to care.” But within a few days, they started complimenting him on his work. He ended up painting multiple walls in the neighborhood, which he admits can seem “a little bit more gnarly than others” in LA. At the end of the day, though, creative freedom and access to new spaces for his work made the experience a memorable one.

“You can paint in Melrose, you can paint in fucking Hollywood, you can paint in a lot of the really heavy saturated spots, but there’s something special about South Central,” says Septerhed. “You feel like you’re actually creating a bigger catalogue and having more exposure as far as spots that haven’t really been tapped yet.”

Before Ayala’s project, South Central LA was already rife with tags and graffiti, which many business owners weren’t happy about. Oftentimes they would end up “spending money on painting and fixing the walls,” Septerhed explains. The murals of Smile South Central — 30 and counting — have offered owners a more positive experience with public art. As both Septerhed and Ayala note, they’ve generally been left untouched by taggers and largely undamaged beyond natural causes.

A mural by Dour One for #SmileSouthCentral
A mural by Dour One for #SmileSouthCentral
A mural by Starfighter for #SmileSouthCentral
A mural by Starfighter for #SmileSouthCentral

With one exception: a large wall containing the work of Septerhed, Jules Muck (also known as Muck Rock), and Annie Preece. Muck and Preece worked on it for a week; locals brought supplies like floodlights and even helped hold their ladders. Septerhed remembered his neighboring wall as one of the largest he’s ever completed.

Then, one day about six months after the mural was completed, a homeless man in the area took out a roller and paint and proceeded to obscure all the work. When locals found out who was responsible for covering up the pieces, they asked him to leave.

“‘When he destroyed that mural, he crossed a line, and that’s when we told him you’re no longer wanted in our community,’” Ayala recalls a local telling him about the incident. The pieces had become a part of the community, and people were devastated to see them gone.

A mural at Kimberly Party Supply on 48th Street and Wall Street has proven even more important to one area resident. Colombia-based artists Crisp and DjLu (also known as Juegasiempre) added the words “Brenda Aguilera 1987-2008” to the bottom of their piece after hearing the story of a young girl who was shot and killed — along with her boyfriend and a bystander — at that same corner.

“This lady walked up to me, and she tells me the story and she tells me the name of the girl and the date,” says Ayala. “And that’s her mom. Her mom’s now telling me the story, how psychologically it’s fucked her up because she can’t move … She feels her daughter’s soul is on the street … ”

Every day that she returned home, the mother relived the murder of her daughter. Now the mural is helping her create new memories.

“She said, ‘This has helped me a lot because now I’m dealing with it in a different way,’” Ayala recalls. “‘Now that I come home from work I don’t see my fucked-up neighborhood anymore. I see this beautiful mural, and it takes that pain away and it doesn’t remind me that my daughter was murdered there.’”

Ayala continues to work with artists to plan murals for the next coming months. He wants to turn Smile South Central into a nonprofit organization and work with suppliers like Blick to provide participating artists with more resources. He hopes to continue providing residents with a chance to create new memories.

Collaboration Mural by artist: @afrika_47 #afrika_47 v @biscosmith #biscosmith for PROJECT #SmileSouthCentral Location: 47th & Main, South central, California… __________________________________________________ In 2014 there were 551 homicides in Greater Los Angeles. Guns accounted for 403 of those homicides, or roughly 75% of deaths. All 403 names are written on this wall. Of the 403 gun homicides the numbers break down as follows: *African Americans were the largest group accounting for almost half of the shootings. 182 victims or 45% . *Latinos where the second largest group, 176 deaths or 43% of the total casualties. *Whites at 34 victims or 8% *Asians 11 victims or 3% This wall honors the lives of all 403 victims. There is a need for disarmament on the streets of America. While gun companies, The NRA and The Politicians reap huge rewards from the trade in weapons, people of color are disproportionately it’s victims…

A photo posted by #smilesouthcentral (@smilesouthcentral) on

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