Walls That Withstand Whitewashing: The Murals of William F. Herron
By: Tommy Vinh Bui
My local library is shuttered for the evening. Opening hours have come and gone and I’m out in this gale again. There’s a distinct aroma of mesquite in the air. Somewhere something’s burning and the wind is carrying the ashes here to the San Fernando Valley. The char curls up in the nostrils and cleaves to every gangly nose hair. I bundle up my collar and tighten the strap on my bookbag and quick pace in the direction of home.
And on the way home I slalom between marauding tumbleweeds and other urban bric-a-brac. Tangles of coarse and loosed vegetation and skeins of coiled rubbish. Wayward plastic bags swarm around like jellyfish when the Santa Ana winds kick up. And they’re out in full flock tonight. Soundlessly blooming and bobbing under the moonlight. I waltz between all the nocturnal this and that rambling and active when the streets are empty.
I walk by a number of murals on my way home. Some old and in dire need of restoration. Some vividly lush with paint still drying. Most with a thin patina of wonder and sense of community pride shellacked to the façade. History and lore stirred into the chemical compound of the paint and applied lovingly to receptive walls. Which reminds me of a particular mural that looms large in Los Angeles street art. In 1972, artist William F. Herron discovered his fifteen-year-old brother prostrate in a pool of blood in a desolate alleyway. A victim of a ferocious attack from rival gang members. His brother was immediately spirited off via ambulance and Herron returned to the grotesque scene of the crime. Working by flashlight, he was compelled to paint a mural on the spot where his brother had been beaten and left to die. He worked feverishly throughout the night and completed the artwork before dawn’s early light. As the morning sun projected amber beams upon the scene, The Wall That Cracked Open was created. A deeply personal and courageous two-story portrait that incorporated Pre-Columbian imagery and Aztlan themes. Drawing from the traditional while also infusing the artwork with contemporary Chicano graffiti motifs, the artwork stood resilient and a testament to the tenacity of the community.
But in 1998, Herron was chagrined to learn that his mural had been frayed off the walls using pressure washers and whitewashed with a neutral tone of paint. Uncompromisingly staid and egregiously eggshell. The 1990s were a period in which graffiti abatement initiatives were surging and county maintenance crews armed with government paint rollers would roam neighborhoods with renewed alacrity. Murals were obliterated left and right during this tumultuous time and many culturally significant artworks went the way of the blank wall. Tragic to be told.
The whitewashing of this mural earned the ire from several community advocates. The blowback severe enough to prompt a response from the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors and the Department of Public Works. After careful deliberation, they saw fit to commission Herron to restore The Wall That Cracked Open and the mural was rededicated in 2000 to much fanfare and community accolade. It’s a real rarity to find an irreplaceable artwork resurrected and restored to its original luster. But a welcome anomalous occurrence.
I continue my trek homeward. I pass a mural here or a utility box adorned with artwork there. My neighborhood is ever more vibrant afterhours when the traffic lets up and the streetlights bathe the storefronts in that harsh halogen hue. And I trundle along the sidewalk and admire the chorus of artistic voices that sing from our walls and the stouthearted monuments to community identity that festoon my zip code.
And along I go. Riding the crest of a twilight. With wildfires smoldering distant and in my belly.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.
I consider graffiti to be tagging. A few years ago my neighbor tore down my chain link fence without permission and put up a sheet metal one. It rusted after one winter. On my side of the fence my grandkids took spray paint and created a panel of expression each – in vibrant colors. The city turned us in to graffiti removal to paint over as it was their fence. They had an exact match for rusty metal.