How The Great Wall of Los Angeles Became a Cultural Landmark
Over the course of five blistering summers in the late 1970s, the LA-based artist Judy Baca worked with hundreds of teenagers from diverse social and economic backgrounds to create the half-mile-long mural known as The Great Wall of Los Angeles. A prime example of what street art is capable of if the right person is on the project’s helm, the mural offered a vivid version of California history with a little factual twist – it was rich with immigrants and was low on white male hero worship. Executed with the help of over 400 community youth and artists coordinated by the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), it was Baca’s first mural and SPARC’s first public art project. Although its official title was The History of California, the mural seems to have always been known far and wide by the name of The Great Wall of Los Angeles.
The Great Wall is located on Coldwater Canyon Ave between Oxnard St & Burbank Blvd and the eastern edge of the Valley College campus in the San Fernando Valley community. It’s 13 feet high, painted directly on concrete, and with a length of 2,754 feet, covering over six city blocks. It’s still considered to be one of the longest murals ever executed. In 2011, Judy Baca performed a restoration of the project, expanding the narrative of The Great Wall of Los Angeles. But she is not yet done – the mural’s story currently ends in the 1950s, with images of Wilma Rudolph and Billy Mills, so Baca plans to start the next section with an image of radical protest from the 1960s. This addition of new scenery will, undoubtedly, only further the ongoing project’s already established cult status and put it even higher on the list of LA’s top true cultural landmarks.
The History Behind the Mural’s Creation
The possibility of creating this masterpiece of urban art was first brought up in the year of 1974 when Baca was contacted by the Army Corps of Engineers about a beautification project. She was offered the chance to decorate the flood-control channel Baca described as “a scar where the river once ran”. The Great Wall as an idea was more fully fleshed out in 1976 when Judy chose to do an epic-sized history of the Los Angeles county. After studying mural-making techniques, Baca, along with the help of her associates, converted an abandoned Venice police station into what can be most accurately defined as a mural headquarters. Once there, she was able to coordinate workshops, archive materials relating to the topic and other programs of the project that was soon named SPARC. Baca recruited a team of artists to help with the project including Isabel Castro, Yreina Cervantez, Judithe Hernandez, Olga Muniz, Patssi Valdez, Margaret Garcia, Christina Schlesinger, Judy Chicago and Gary Tokumoto. Each section of the wall was done via a process that included research, inviting experts in various fields relating to the content, interviewing people who lived through the parts of history in question (if possible) and transferring the approved sketches onto a wall. The imagery was designed to help weed out biases and over 400 young people helped paint the mural over the course of 6 summers. The first phase of The Great Wall of Los Angeles was finally completed in 1984.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles – The Longest Mural in the World
Interestingly, The Great Wall of Los Angeles was already the longest mural after the summer of 1976 when the piece’s segment covering the period between the time of dinosaurs and the 1910s was finished. However, Judy Baca was not ready to stop there. With a history of large collaborative mural projects behind her, she organized an incredible number of young artists to add another 350 feet of narrative and a decade of history seen from the viewpoint of California ethnic groups. She wanted to show how these groups of people were able to overcome overwhelming obstacles placed before them. As it was said earlier, the piece’s official title was The History of California, but in truth, no one called it that from the 1980s onward as The Great Wall of Los Angeles was a much more grandiose name that seemed a lot more appropriate to the size and subject matter of the mural. Today, the length of the Great Wall totals to 2,754 feet, although that number will definitely get bigger when Judy finished her plans of making the wall even greater.
The Style of the Mural
The style of the enormous mural is considered to be Social Realism, an international movement that encompassed the work of artists who drew attention to the everyday conditions of the working class. The subject matter of the Great Wall, its aspect we shall soon take a closer look at, doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable aspects of current and past social practices found in the United States of America. The marvelous design and composition of the wall are also considered to be major aspects of the mural’s appeal. Because The Great Wall of Los Angeles depicts historical events, the mural is part of Grant High School and Valley College‘s curriculum.
Subject Matter of The Great Wall of Los Angeles
Great Wall is a landmark pictorial representation of the history of ethnic peoples of California, starting as far back as prehistoric times and (currently) ending in the 1950’s. Conceived by SPARC’s artistic director and founder Judy Baca, it depicts the history of California as seen through the eyes of women and minorities. Fundamentally, the mural is a series of connected panels that are placed chronologically in order to tell a story. The first panels begins with prehistory and colonialism, depicting native wildlife and the creation story of the indigenous Chumash. The majority of the following panels deal with events of the 20th century, such as the Chinese labor contributions to the United States, the Great Depression, the Japanese-American internment of World War II, the Freedom Bus rides, the disappearance of Rosie the Riveter, gay rights activism, deportations of Mexican-Americans and the birth of Rock and Roll. Interestingly, each section of The Great Wall of Los Angeles was designed by a different artist under the close supervision of Baca who provided guidance.
As you can see by the examples of its scenery, The Great Wall of Los Angeles places emphasis on the often overlooked history of Native Americans, minorities, LGBTQ-identified people and those fighting for civil rights. Baca often talked about the initial circumstances during which she started to put the project into motion, stating that there was an obvious lack of public arts that represented the a diverse heritage of Los Angeles during the 1970s. “It’s not just history, it’s really about relationships — about connecting”, Judy Baca once stated, giving us a better insight into what the conceptual basis of the mural really are.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles
The Future of The Great Wall of California
Since the mural suffered some environmental damage over time, it was restored in 2011 under the watchful eye of the Santa Barbara-based Youth CineMedia program and Judy Baca. However, the restoration did not put an end to the project’s ambitions. Plans for a bridge and solar lighting to allow better viewing of the mural has been proposed in 2014, an expansion that will be funded by the city and will enter the seven figure range price-wise. Judy Baca also plans to introduce further scenery to the wall. The Great Wall of Los Angeles currently ends with the stories of Wilma Rudolph, the black female athlete who overcame poverty and childhood paralysis to win Olympic gold in track events, and Billy Mills, the Native American athlete whose story is just as inspirational. Judy Baca plans to continue the history of California beyond the 1950s, venturing forward chronologically and depicting events from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It is estimated that The Great Wall of Los Angeles will be over a mile long upon the finished expansion. This will certainly only expand the already well-established iconic status the mural enjoyed for decades and turn it into an even more impressive monument of interracial harmony.
- Anonymous, 2017, The Great Wall – History and Description, Social and Public Arts Resource Center [Sep 15, 2017]
- Anonymous, January 2012, The Beginning: How The Great Wall Of Los Angeles Was Conceived, KCET [Sep 15, 2017]
- Wilkman, J., Wilkman, N., Los Angeles: A Pictorial Celebration, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
- Wolf, J., July 2016, A legacy that lives on the walls, UCLA [Sep 15, 2017]
- Carrillo, S., July 2014, The Great Wall of Los Angeles: a Window into Our Past, Facing History and Ourselves [Sep 15, 2017]
- Finkel, J., September 2017, Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles to get even greater, The Art Newspaper [Sep 15, 2017]
Featured images: Photo of Judy Baca in front of the wall – Image via archive.li; Great Wall of Los Angeles – Image via judybaca.com; Photo of Judy Baca in front of the wall – Image via staticflickr.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.