The lost Chicano mural that redefined the meaning of 'art' in California
The work was an urban tapestry, reflecting the diversity of Boyle Heights in the 80s. Then it was destroyed. But its loss was not in vain.
In the spring of 1980, four young Chicano artists met up at the corner of 4th and Soto in Boyle Heights. They called themselves the "East Los Streetscapers."
Wayne Healy, George Yepes, David Botello and his brother Paul were painters, commissioned by Shell Oil.
The men gazed at their future canvas: a 200-foot long cinderblock wall, right at the edge of a gas station.
Their finished work would be an urban tapestry, rich with imagery reflective of the community.
On one side, one could see traditional Mayan figures mixed with a multi-ethnic set of modern characters, laughing, reading, and cruising. Down the wall, an industrialized prehistoric jungle where dinosaurs turn into crude.
They'd call it: "Filling Up on Ancient Energies."
The Shell station is now a tire store. The mural and the story it told is gone – most of the wall was torn down in 1988.
Just over 10 feet of the painted wall remains, much of it obstructed by a rack of tires. However, if you know where to look, you can still catch a glimpse of what was. The once bold proclamation of heritage might best be described today as a whisper.
"It's like a little child just living in obscurity," said Botello.
Botello and Healy revisited the wall in August with Take Two host A Martinez. It was the first time they'd seen it in nearly 30 years.
Up until recently, their work was obstructed by a stack of tires. The store's proprietors moved them prior to the interview.
"I'll be damned, look at that. We painted that 100 years ago. Or is it 150? I forget," Healy said.
"Filling Up on Ancient Energies" is not the only mural of its kind to be taken down or covered up with little-to-no notice. But the court battle that followed its destruction would help reshape the state's definition of "art."
The same year the Streetscapers began their work on the wall, the state of California passed the California Art Preservation Act. It required artists to be notified at least 90 days before the destruction of their work — a consideration that would not have been difficult in the case of the "Energies" mural. Contact information for the artists was painted clearly on the wall.
But the Streetscapers received no warning that their mural would come down. Botello says all he got was a phone call from a teacher at a nearby school after destruction was already underway.
"Mister Botello! Mister Botello! You have to come down now!" Botello recalls the teacher saying frantically. "I had my son. I was doing my artwork at home. Packed him up, got my camera. [When I got there] it was all on the ground in big chunks."
There is a way to preserve murals, Botello mused to KPCC's A Martinez, standing on the site where his art fell: Paint, he said, can be transferred onto a sheet, similar to a large carbon copy. But the artists were given no opportunity to retain their work.
It's a reality that makes the loss of the mural all the more tragic.
The Streetscapers sued Shell Oil over the mural but lost their initial case. Art like theirs wasn't covered under the state's Preservation Act. The group persevered and appealed and, in 1991, the ruling was overturned. Murals were included under the Act, and the Streetscapers were awarded damages.
"If this mural had a reason to go, that it was not in vain, it was the precedent of the California Art Preservation Act," Healy says. "We were the first test case."
"They redefined the meaning of the mural," Botello chipped in. "They said it was artwork that artists could preserve."
Press the blue play button above to hear the Streetscapers in their own words. Wear headphones to hear the conversation in stereo.
This post has been updated.