The wash of Californian history: A mural that paints the story of the state’s diverse history

What was once a concrete eyesore in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles has become a historic landmark.

By Marcos Franco, Managing Editor

The 1940’s portion of the Los Angeles Great Wall portrays Adolf Hitler along with Jewish Americans, Nov. 5, 2021. (Photo by Adrian Ramirez /The Valley Star)

Humanities Professor Edward Gika walked spectators through the colorful historic events painted on the 13.5-foot walls at the Tujunga Wash Flood Control Channel last Friday, which houses one of the largest continuous murals in the world.

Originally named “History of California,” the painting was given the nickname “Great Wall'' in 1980, six years after the start of the project. The mural located at the eastern edge of Valley College began with the idea of a beautification project from the Army Corps of Engineers who contacted Judith Francisco Baca, the mastermind behind the wall. At the time, the Chicana artist held the rank of executive director at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice California. Sixty-five thousand hours of labor and 600 gallons of paint later, the project welcomes tourists, providing a colorful visual of social realism enjoyed by both historians and art connoisseurs.

“My favorite portion of the wall is when we get into World War I,” said Gika. “There's a depiction of Charlie Chaplin dressed as a doughboy [American soldier], and although he was never a soldier he did a lot of war bond sales. That part of the wall transitions into Hollywood, into Thomas Edison and the invention of the camera leading to moving pictures and I love that kind of narrative and fanatic connection.”

Charlie Chaplin, dressed as an American Doughboy, stands with a riffle, Nov. 5, 2021. (Photo by Christopher Perez/The Valley Star)

Baca, along with help from 80 juvenile correction members, 10 artists and five historians, started the wall in 1974 and worked over the course of five summers to complete it. The number of individuals grew to more than 400, including workers from the juvenile justice center, Army Corps and summer youth employment programs. The group created the now half-a-mile long mural that runs along Coldwater Canyon Avenue between Oxnard Street and Burbank Boulevard.

The first 1000 feet of artwork completed by Baca and her crew made the Great Wall the largest mural in the world by 1976. The mural began with 20,000 B.C. prehistoric California and continued to tell the story of the Golden state up to 1910. Throughout that time frame, the mission system was established by Junipero Serra who worked to spread Catholicism in the state, colonizing Native Indians in 1769. The Mexican-American War which lasted two years from 1846 to 1848, ending with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, is also depicted leading into the California Gold Rush of 1848.

The group of artists, determined to tell the state’s history even further, picked up work for the project again in the summer of 1978, continuing in 1980, 1981 and 1983, adding 350 feet to the mural each year.

The 1930’s painted the constitutional ban on the production, importation and sale of alcohol across the United States. Following Prohibition, the wall shows the destruction of the 1933 Long Beach 6.4 magnitude earthquake, amounting to $50 million in damage according to the California Department of Conservation.

The 1940's denounced fascism across Europe, characterizing an image of a gray zombie-resembling Adolf Hitler who is holding the single arm Sieg Heil Nazi salute. In the final decade of the mural, viewers are walked through 1950’s postwar America, where drive-in movies and Elvis Presley were mainstream entertainment. The final portion of the wall shows 66-year-old Avrana Arechiga being carried away by a police officer as she shakes her fist in anger looking back at her soon to be demolished neighborhood in the Chavez Ravine. The 36-year resident of the predominantly Mexican-American area was one of the few remaining tenants who refused to leave their homes in a protest against the construction of Dodger Stadium in 1958 that forced 300 families out of their homes.

The Great Wall public monument serves as a tribute to the working people of California, whose contributions helped shape the state’s history. Their struggles to overcome obstacles are told in a half-a-mile long story painted around the corner from Valley. Known for her sociopolitical portrayal of Latino culture in paintings, Baca focuses her artwork on the often unaccounted for minority groups who have made such an impact on American history.

“I really don’t want to produce artwork that does not have meaning beyond simple decorative values,” said Baca in a statement from SPARC. “I want to use public space to create a public voice, and a public consciousness about the presence of people who are, in fact, the majority of the population but who are not represented in any visual way. By telling their stories we are giving voice to the voiceless and visualizing the whole of the American story.”

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