Beneath Santa Barbara’s red-tile roofs lurks a Technicolor tapestry of murals. You see them in the form of four faces staring at you from on high as you drive down Anacapa Street past the General Services building. You see them in the form of revelers dancing with hoisted masks as you pull into the Granada Theatre parking garage. They seemingly jump out at you from every nook and cranny of the fast-developing Funk Zone. Some of them you’ve looked at for years in the lobby of the public library, in parks, and in schools. Others appear overnight and sometimes vanish just as quickly. Taken together, it can seem that the wide range of murals here have become so interwoven into the fabric of the city that you don’t even notice them anymore.
In Santa Barbara, it’s hard to walk two blocks without encountering a mural. Especially in the past few years, mural projects have proliferated. At UCSB, the Community Housing Office has started a course in public art taught by librarian and working artist Ann Hefferman. Her students have both restored old works and painted new murals in Goleta, including a 30-by-80-foot “A View of the World from Isla Vista” at the base of the new Plaza Lofts development. Meanwhile downtown a nonprofit called Youth Interactive debuted a mural project this summer with an ode to Saint Barbara that is now hanging in the alley beside Municipal Winemakers in the heart of the Funk Zone. And in just a few short years, the AMASS (Artists Making a Street Scene) murals lining nearby Mason Street have become iconic, receiving nationwide attention and bringing the creations of Santa Barbara artists to the attention of the world while providing a space for street artists to ply their craft without fear of legal repercussions.
Long before murals became an excuse to keep graffiti artists off the streets, however, they were an abiding social force. And while Santa Barbara’s renewed love affair with the genre is well justified, beautiful murals have adorned the walls — inside and out — of this fair city for years, providing a necessary yin to the yang of red-tile roofs and white stucco walls. In an area that can feel anesthetically picturesque, these colorful walls that hide in plain sight demand an emotional, political, and aesthetic reaction. As Ginny Brush, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, puts it, “Whether you like a mural or not, it creates a dialogue. People don’t have to love it or hate it, but talk about it. That creates excitement and makes the space lively.”
Multiple Mural Perspectives
Read together, the murals of Santa Barbara tell a story of the region’s origins, but the origins of murals themselves are hard to pin down. One could reasonably start with cave paintings. Still, there are a few strains of this form of public art that decidedly manifest in Santa Barbara’s examples. Those include the New Deal projects of the 1930s, when artists were tasked with creating public displays that often celebrated the workers. A recently finished mural on the side of the Santa Barbara Art Foundry by Skate Mafia skateboard illustrator Thatcher Hillegas pays homage to the period with an art-deco motif. Of course, there are real examples of Works Projects Administration accomplishments such as the Campbell Grant depictions of Chumash Indians at Santa Barbara High School. Then there is the late-20th-century tradition of street art that questions social mores and political establishments and often deliberately breaks the law. The most important place to start, however, might be the protest tradition of the great 20th-century Mexican muralists.
It was in the Mexico of the 1920s and ’30s that artists repurposed the iconography of Catholic ornamentation into socialist murals. Not only did the content of the paintings suggest revolutionary themes, but the fact that they were accessible to the working class — as opposed to being hoarded in museums and galleries for privileged art consumers — was itself a statement. When a mural painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s “tres grandes” (along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco), was transferred to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) a decade ago, it arrived to great fanfare. An ideal centerpiece of the city’s artistic menagerie, the mural sits outside the museum in a protective structure to the south of the building’s main doors, available for free public viewing any time. It tells the story of corrupt leaders selling out Mexico’s peasants in order to get rich through American interests, and it features a half-naked Mexican girl staring at the viewer hauntingly with pleading, almond-shaped eyes.
Siqueiros’s innovations include several techniques that have become standard among graffiti artists and muralists alike. These include bubble lettering and the use of Dulux paint, along with the deployment of what art historians call “polyangular perspective,” meaning that the viewer cannot take in the entire painting from one vantage point. SBMA docent Loree Gold refers to polyangular perspective as “a duality of words and form.” Just as a story can be retold from multiple points of view, so a painting may relate an equally intricate sequence of different perspectives. Of the SBMA Siqueiros, Gold said, “That masterpiece is a deeper story about culture, the people, and the problems of the country,” explaining that while traditionally murals create beauty, they can also engage with ugliness.
When the Chicano movement kicked off in the 1960s, artists in the United States reclaimed the Mexican mural tradition by covering urban barrio walls with didactic messages celebrating Mesoamerican culture and by presenting this work as an alternative to Eurocentric aesthetic sensibilities. The godfather of such art in Santa Barbara is Manuel Unzueta, whose creations climb across walls all over the American Riviera, at schools, colleges, in La Casa de la Raza, and at the Franklin Center, among other locations.
Whereas American art emphasizes technique, resulting in paintings that force consideration of the inner workings of the human mind, explained Unzueta, in Mexico, “artists pay more attention to detail.” His own murals foreground the features of indigenous faces, Aztec symbols, and sometimes even the tendons of clenched forearms as in those seen striving toward respect and enlightenment in a mural called “The New Spirit” that greets visitors entering La Casa de la Raza on Montecito Street.
“The Chicano movement is a pressure movement,” explained Unzueta. “It asks kids to dream. Why shouldn’t a little kid from the barrio want to be an astronaut?” He posed this question about a month ago as he was helping to put the finishing touches on a new mural inside Santa Barbara Junior High School. It covers two sides of a hallway. One wall represents the thinkers of the material world, and it includes portraits of many famous scientists against a background of solar systems and supernovas.
The other wall represents the spiritual world and features two towering Chumash Indians at opposite ends of the image, bearing water jugs. The Chumash are bending over, and, as water spills from their jugs, it spirals down into an ocean teeming with life. An arrow-straight rainbow shoots across the entire mural, which recounts the fable of the rainbow bridge that the Chumash gods created for the tribe to cross over to the mainland when their ancestral homeland on the Channel Islands became overcrowded. Those who doubted the gods and looked down fell into the ocean and were turned into dolphins.
This particular mural vision was created by one of Unzueta’s protégés, Miguel Rodriguez, who is also currently one of two project leaders for the City of Santa Barbara’s Arts Alliance program. These Arts Alliance project leaders are employed by the city to paint murals while mentoring younger artists. The other leader there right now is Danny Meza, a 23-year-old tattoo artist with two years of formal training in graphic design. Meza and Rodriguez are a study in contrasts, both in personality and in style.
“Everyone wants dolphins or the Mission [on their murals],” Meza said recently while overlooking the traffic from the balcony attached to his primary workplace, Mission Tattoo. Since Unzueta recruited him to work for the Arts Alliance, Meza has learned some of the basic mechanical techniques of mural painting (such as drawing a perfect circle by attaching a pencil to a tether with a string) and has been pressured to temper the cartoonish quality of his portraits. Some of his pieces were recently selected for a gallery show in Berkeley, and he is beginning to feel constrained by the smallness of Santa Barbara as a place to develop his personal creative vision.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, does not envision a future as a professional artist. Although he was dedicated enough to paint through the night without compensation while working on the Junior High mural, he is studying to become a mechanic in S.B. City College’s automotive technology program. But that’s not how Ricardo Venegas, the founder of Arts Alliance, sees him. With his talent and his concern for the education of young children, Venegas told me that Rodriguez has the makings of a good art teacher.
When Rodriguez first came to the Arts Alliance six years ago, said Venegas, he was extremely disengaged at school, and his parents, a heavy machine operator and house cleaner, felt he should be earning money. Arts Alliance helped to alleviate both concerns. The 20-year-old Rodriguez is introverted and thoughtful. His family emigrated from Mexico when he was 10, and he is aware that he still sports a thick accent, a signifier of his strong identity with Mexican history. He likes that his murals teach kids about Latino culture, and he shares Unzueta’s predilection for indigenous themes. “To advance, you need to know your history,” he said.
Where Rodriguez’s work is expressionistic and focuses on symbolism and movement, Meza’s displays the strong lines of a natural illustrator. Meza grew up drawing cartoon characters and superheroes, eventually becoming a graffiti artist. Artistically, he looks toward the relatively lowbrow works of Robert Williams and the contributors to Juxtapoz magazine for inspiration. Meza spent two years at The Art Institute of California–Los Angeles before dropping out and moving back in with his single mother on the Westside to help support her. He’s wondering if it isn’t time to spread his wings once more.
Faking the Funk
Certainly by tradition, and almost by definition, urban muralism pushes the envelope in terms of both content and permission to paint. Martin Diaz, another graffiti-artist-turned-muralist, echoes Meza, noting that many business owners want their murals to look just like the rest of Santa Barbara, which to him defeats the purpose: to use art to push social boundaries and spark political imaginations. Diaz has seen many of his buddies take off for Los Angeles, either for the sake of artistic freedom or to set about the practical matter of getting discovered. Those friends include world-renowned and now L.A.-based UCSB alum David Flores, who created the large mural on the back wall of the Church of Skatan on Gutierrez Street. It features the character Max from the iconic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are riding a skateboard. (According to a shop employee, the city is concerned that it distracts drivers on Highway 101, so it is up in the air whether the one-year permit allowing that mural will be renewed.)
The character Max, who illustrates the dark, neglected corners of a child’s unconscious, could easily stand as a symbol for the outsider urban art that formerly proliferated just south of Church of Skatan’s Gutierrez Street location in the Funk Zone. That once-forgotten Hamsterdam, where blue-collar businesses butted up against artist studios, the homeless, and other refugees from polite society, is now booming with restaurants, wine bars, and hotels. To different extents, artists are worried that they will lose not only places to live but a neighborhood that resisted assimilation to the Spanish Colonial taste pattern of downtown Santa Barbara.
“I used to walk around the Funk Zone with a six pack of spray cans out in the open, and nobody would say a thing,” said Diaz. Recently, he spent weeks completing a rooftop mural that was buffed over the next day. Although the landlord approved the mural, its next-door neighbors were wary of the attention it might draw. Dana Walters, the owner of Reds Bar & Tapas, was one of the earliest businesspeople to realize that the creative energy of the Funk Zone could be channeled into commercial success. For years, Walters has rotated murals on the outside walls of Reds. Currently, the back wall features a collaboration between Diaz and Skye Gwilliam, street artist and Funk Zone resident. The side wall at Reds shows a portrait of a sailor by another member of Diaz’s Momentum art collective, Chadillac Green.
While it’s de rigueur to compare the Funk Zone to neighborhoods like SoHo in New York, where artists made the place attractive to developers who then gentrified it and pushed them out, Katie Hay, the developer of the Anacapa Project, sees that as a reductive narrative. She made it a point to reserve spaces for public art in her development, including the six bifold doors along Yanonali Street that sit astride the Guitar Bar. Erika Carter, who runs Green House Studio, also on Yanonali, gathered five fellow artists to complete the first installations on those doors, which will rotate out in six months. Carter is confident that there is still space for a thriving arts community in the Funk Zone despite the fact that the structure on Mason Street whose murals serve as a de facto trademark for the entire neighborhood will be razed to make way for the long-simmering La Entrada hotel project. And murals are not leaving anytime soon as the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara has commissioned a large mural to be painted on the side of Hotel Indigo by Brooklyn-based artist Rafael Vargas-Suarez.
Do They Protest Too Much?
The bigger question is whether Santa Barbara’s murals will be more decorative than provocative, watered down by the tastes of businesses and the vagaries of neighborhood beautification. Will the edgier pieces be displaced by milquetoast simulacra that appeal to a bourgeois sensibility, or will street artists continue to use murals to make Santa Barbarans rethink their history, their values, and their tastes? This whitewashing of the scene worries Skye Gwilliam, the street artist and owner of GONE gallery. He has said that while he admires the muralists chosen for the Anacapa Project, he feels he was frozen out of the selection process because of his reputation as a street artist. “If [art] is subversive, it isn’t supported here,” he said, sharing his fear that there is less and less space — literally and figuratively — for artwork that pushes the envelope of acceptability.
What the murals born of the street art and Chicano movements share, along with formal techniques, is an intention to create discomfort with the status quo. Just as polyangular perspective asks viewers to constantly revise their reading of a depicted event, so these socially conscious murals ask viewers to continually revise their understandings of themselves. As public art, murals do this on a community-wide scale. And because murals are often temporary by design, the act of painting and repainting walls approximates the act of thinking and rethinking who we are as a community. As explained by former S.B. County Arts commissioner Patrick Davis, “In a city that has changed and gentrified, our mural heritage is an important part of Santa Barbara’s cultural ecology.” When walls are buffed and repainted, they form a long-running conversation with each other about a city’s identity.
Sometimes, when the community finds a mural important enough, it finds the means to preserve it. Such is the case, for instance, with the mural room on the second floor of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse — ground zero for many tourist visits to the area. These towering panels painted by the Hollywood set designer Daniel Sayre Groesbeck in 1928 tell the history of Santa Barbara as a series of conquests. The Spanish claim the land from the “most enlightened” natives of California. Eventually, the Anglo Americans, led by John Fremont’s surprise attack via the San Marcos Pass, defeat these same Spanish conquerors. And then, through the construction of the Mission, the inhabitants of Santa Barbara triumph over nature itself. In scope and scale, all of these murals somehow speak to Santa Barbara’s diverse history and to its aspirations for the future. In doing so, they call out for our response.