Author: Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta|Damian Mendieta
An entire world of vibrant art lies neatly tucked away in the alleys, parking lots and residential areas of Highland Park. Meanwhile, a treasure trail of murals and art dot the streets to the east of Occidental, exploding with life and color upon reaching the Figueroa corridor. The dazzling works of art not only add decor to the otherwise bare walls of the neighborhood, but also serve as anti-graffiti measures in an area plagued by gang tagging, according to local artists.
Popular hot spots, such as frequented local taco restaurant, La Estrella, and the Highland Park Theater, are clear examples of buildings that murals protect from vandalism. Fiery Latina/o history and Catholic traditions speak to the passerby, and also discourages desecration from gangs. Paintings of La Virgen de Guadalupe, images of the Mexican revolution and depictions of immigrant families invoke the spirit of many local residents.
Across the street from the Highland Park Theater lies a seemingly ordinary parking lot, hidden away from the traffic of Figueroa Street. In contrast to the surrounding dull brown and grey walls, the rich designs spray painted on the alleyway entrance make it seem almost as if it could be a gateway into an urban art exhibit. Customers flow in and out, clutching their purchases from the busy swap meet establishment that claims the parking lot. But there is one other store that shares the parking space, and on the back wall of this shop is a striking mural depicting two majestic eagles, an authoritative Mesoamerican temple and a furious indigenous male hammering the ground with his fists.
A step back from the fascinating work reveals that the eagles represent two neighboring nations with many commonalities. The brown Mexican raptor devouring a snake flanks the left side of the mural, as the American bald eagle lines the right. Surrounded by an elegant mountainous landscape, but with a desolate desert in the middle, lightning descends from the heavens to add a degree of spectacle to the mural.
Just before one turns away and walks out of the parking lot, a name written in bright white text jumps out from the top-left corner. As the name John Zender Estrada becomes more clear, someone happens to walk out of his shop into the parking lot, seemingly on cue. The man recognizes the murals’ admirers and approaches, smiles and asks, “Do you like my art?”
For decades, artists such as Estrada have championed the representation of the Latino community through their work. After an illustrious career encompassing graffiti, Chicano murals and abstract painting, Estrada’s presence in Highland Park endures as he engages in mural restorations every Wednesday, and also operates a shop called Mute Da World. His store not only showcases urban Chicano art but also serves as an unofficial haven for aspiring local artists.
During such an impromptu encounter, Estrada extends an invitation to attend an exhibit of over 30 Latino artists in commemoration of Latino Heritage Month. South of Occidental nearb East Los Angeles College lies ChimMaya, a Latino art gallery and the which showcases an assortment of Latino artists. ChimMaya is bustling with Latin music and the cool atmosphere that radiates from guests and artists alike.
On display are three shiny black and white drawings with heavy Chicano influences. Estrada says that he tried to combine the three major movements he has been associated with for past decades. He began as an aspiring graffiti artist, but later focused on the Chicano art scene before he ventured out to produce abstract paintings.
“Basically what they are is a fusion of the three styles I’ve had for the last couple of years,” he said, pointing towards three finely detailed images, each selling for one hundred dollars.
His works are entitled “Aztec Head,” “Urban Chicano” and “Sangre por Sangre,” translated as ‘Blood for Blood.”
“The symbol of the urban Chicano, which is the sun, it’s not really the sun but also the sun and the homeboy,” Estrada explains while also noting, “It’s also a cultural icon of the people and what they have to say. The tongue has always been there in the Aztec art. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but for me the tongue is screaming and also poking fun, like when we were kids and said, ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.'”
Surprisingly, Estrada‘s works were drawn entirely in black Sharpie pens on cheap, glossy printer paper. These images in black and white are intended for future t-shirt and merchandise designs to be sold at his shop back in Highland Park.
“You’ll see them in prints and in postcards,” Estrada says about the three compositions. “We’re going to try to market the design because it’s very edgy, but it also applies to the young people.”
After attending Otis College of Art and Design, Estrada got into the L.A. art scene and worked on hundreds of murals celebrating the Chicano community. Due to problems with taggers desecrating his art, that number has dwindled across the years. Despite that, he continues to actively fight against vandalism by taking part in the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.
Closer to Occidental and northwest of Figueroa Street, local conservancy advocate and famed muralist Judy Baca co-procured “The History of Highland Park,” a grandeur work that covers two sides of what was once a Pacific Bell telephone building. This mural is located a few blocks away from campus on the corner of Meridian Street and Avenue 56, and includes vignettes from several different artists.
Early in his career, Estrada said he and Baca often competed for the limited grants that were available for muralists. Today, they both seem to care more about restoring and conserving the murals of Highland Park.
Estrada has come to represent a voice for artists who are often ignored in Highland Park, professing that Mute Da World would do everything possible to help youths hone their artistic talents. From a bright mural of Jesus Christ adorning the Highland Park Theater, to hopeful murals dotting empty parking lots, Estrada‘s work is not solely about himself, but his community.
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