Muralist Robert Vargas is painting a towering history of L.A. above the traffic
The rope tugs and Robert Vargas is hoisted with brushes and paint to the unfinished face of a child. Lips, nose, chin, she begins to bloom from the side of a building. An eye, five stories up, gleams. She is the color of clay and earth and soon she will be complete, looking over the homeless, glancing at rich girls and Escalades, peeking across the skyline toward the ocean.
“Hey, man,” someone yells from below. “You painted that, right?”
“It’s good, man.”
The voice disappears down the alley. Vargas, suspended on a rig for high-rise window washers, turns back to the mural that is coming to life on a 12-story apartment building across from Pershing Square in downtown L.A.. When he’s done later this year, the canvas, 60,000 square feet of wall and windows, will tell the tale of the city with images of the L.A. River, Gustavo Dudamel, indigenous Tongva Indians, an ancient sycamore and three bright-winged angels.
“I’m starting to build a relationship with the wall,” Vargas, who began his work weeks ago, said beneath a spattered straw hat. “I’m in beast-mode now.”
Rising from Venice Beach to Little Tokyo, murals are vivid narratives of the city, montages of politics, identity, civil rights and surrealness that portray characters including Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, Filipino farmworkers and the restored Anthony Quinn at the old Victor Clothing Co. They are compressed and towering, shining from brick walls and car washes, glimmering in alleys. Many murals began appearing at least a half-century ago as part of the Mexican American heritage movement; they were banned for a decade, and have been undergoing a resurgence since 2013.
Born to a roofer and a onetime cashier at Clifton’s, Vargas, who grew up in a Victorian in Boyle Heights, is a mercurial son of the city. He’s a skilled self-promoter known for portraits and street art, including the “Our Lady of DTLA” mural at 6th and Spring streets. Vargas at his essence is a populist, an artist who sees in Los Angeles the roots of self and the rebirth of a neglected historic core, where as a child he hopped in his father’s car and rolled past dressed-up crowds and faces peeking from the architecture around the old movie palaces on Broadway.
“My grandmother used to come to downtown to see James Brown and Little Stevie Wonder at the Million Dollar Theater. Some of my relatives were involved in the Zoot Suit riots,” he said. “Boyle Heights gave me a clear sight line to the downtown skyline. Downtown always loomed very large in my periphery. I think because of that I was destined to draw big and paint big.”