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Kimberly Duran and Bud Herrera are decked out in their gas masks, standing among brushes and rows of spray cans. They’re adding color, shape and form to a pair of long wooden doors, creating another mural in Santa Ana.
This one features an indigenous North American, or an Aztec Indian. They did this piece for the entrance of an automotive shop off First Street near Standard Avenue, and they didn’t even ask for money in return.
“It didn’t look like a nice spot at first. But we saw the space and the potential and took the initiative,” Duran said. “We just did it based on the community and what we saw in the community.”
Duran signs the work “Shmi.” Herrera, her partner in legal muralism, signs it “Delt.”
This dynamic duo of graffiti artists and street muralists are a key part of today’s Santa Ana mural scene.
Granted, the mural scene in Santa Ana has long been around. It was happening in the early days of the Artists Village, and even before then, too.
Throughout the city there are murals by Emigdio Vasquez, his son Higgy Vasquez, Dana Jazayeri and Gil Vasquez. Some well-known murals by Marina Aguilera from the 1970s and ‘80s have been white-washed over.
The mural scene has stood the test of time in and around downtown Santa Ana, but there’s been a revitalization recently, and it’s largely been taking place in the East End, with an occasional Artists Village or West End contribution. Jonathan Martinez recently completed a raven mural at Birch and Fourth streets, next to Gunther’s and behind Café Cultura.
In the East End, the mural scene has been growing with the new eateries, shops and bars popping up, supported by some strategic moves and interesting planning by developer Ryan Chase.
Two of the leaders of this East End scene are Duran, 29, a Santa Ana native, and Herrera, 31, originally from East Los Angeles. He’s been in Santa Ana for the past five years.
Late last year, the city of Santa Ana completed a project beautifying the exterior of a bathroom located in a parking lot on Third and Bush streets. Eight murals by six artists are on display. Two of the pictures — a Buddha and a psychedelic portrait of Frida Kahlo — are by Duran and Herrera, respectively. One large, two-part mural is done by the Art for Change Collaborative, led by Whitney Rose Egoian Barchey and Elizabeth Cardenas Sevilla.
A butterfly mural with splotches of orange, red, yellow and black paint is done by the singularly named “Gene.” Brian Peterson painted “Bold as a Lion” and “The Elephant in the Room.” And Ed Turrell created “Pure Light,” which captures a hummingbird drinking nectar from a red flower.
Mere steps away from the beautified bathrooms are nine wood panels of varying size featuring 18 murals. About six are done by Duran and Herrera. These works include a three-part picture of a Hindu-like goddess; a ladybug and a stone, bearded head with closed eyes; and the head of a Queztalcoatl with a ladybug in the top left-hand corner. “Creator Queztalcoatl” — he’s the winged serpent in Aztec myth — is signed by “Delt” and “Shmi.”
On the opposite side of Queztalcoatl, the two have painted a mural of what looks like a Chinese stone lion, overlooking a spark or inferno of some sort. It’s titled “Chinatown Burning,” and it was painted in homage of Santa Ana’s very own Chinatown, which was burned intentionally to the ground on May 25, 1906.
A viewer can’t really see the town ablaze. The conflagration is off in the distance, just beyond the horizon, shrouded by the proud stone lion. One wouldn’t necessarily know it’s capturing a very ugly turn of events in Orange County history.
“We try not to put controversial imagery, or any kind of negativity out there,” Herrera said. “We’re utilizing our skills. This is what we do to uplift the people. We want to make it more pleasant for people’s daily commute or everyday living. You don’t want to see something like an eyesore. You don’t want a kid to get upset.”
The duo — who usually work together but have their own separate paintings and artworks as well — have also created two murals in Santa Ana’s MainPlace mall. One is in the children’s playground section, covering an area that used to be a hair salon.
The mural features greenery, butterflies and the duo’s signature ladybug. There’s a “hole” in the wall where nature’s spilling out.
Duran and Herrera also decorated the wood boards covering Eat Chow when the restaurant was under construction.
“The business owner enjoyed the art,” Herrera said. “They liked it. Restaurant owners, small business owners too, they’re trying to get some business, some activity, customers through the door. So we were like entertainment when we were painting those.”
Duran and Herrera — who sometimes go by the moniker “@Heavy” — also painted a mural outside From the Earth dispensary on Orange Avenue, near the corner of Dyer Road and Main Street. And 14 boards in front of McFadden Market on Fifth and Bush streets are done by the two artists.
“We don’t need a gallery, because we have the streets, and more people are going to see it, because there’s constantly traffic,” Duran said. “You don’t have to wait for the gallery to open. We never participate in the ArtWalk, but our art does.”
Murals: A Walking Tour
A curious art fan in search of public murals could easily do a walking tour of Santa Ana. In the Artists Village, behind Fourth Element Gallery on Broadway, there’s an alley that features five large ones, including “Un Amor de Loros Santaneros/Parrot Santanero Love Birds” by Colombian American artist Alicia Rojas.
Rojas has nine other murals in Santa Ana, six downtown. One of her recent works dealing with immigration is in the basement of the Grand Central Art Center, in Crear Studio.
On the corner of Bush and First streets is a series of murals depicting scenes from contemporary urban culture. The murals are behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, near the East Village Workshops on Bush Street.
There’s a well-known World War II memorial by Carlos Aguilar called “Heroes Among Us” on the side of La Chiquita Grocery. The 2012 mural honors Mexican Americans who served in mankind’s deadliest war. The work, on the corner of Washington Avenue and Custer Street in the Logan barrio, is a dime toss away from Logan Creative, which houses artists’ studios and the Blinking Owl Distillery.
Unfortunately, Aguilar’s mural was vandalized in March 2018, and a suspect was arrested, various news outlets reported. A few different groups raised money to restore the mural, and it has since been returned to its original condition.
Emigdio Vasquez is a legendary muralist from Santa Ana, and his son Higgy still does murals in Santa Ana, Anaheim and Orange. Daughter Peggy Vasquez is involved as well.
In fact, even the Santa Ana Police Officers Association has gotten in on the act, raising money to fund the organization’s own mural.
Tram Le, the city of Santa Ana’s arts and culture specialist, helped get the Third and Bush Street bathroom project going. She also helps the city maintain it, as a certain segment of the local population has been prone to vandalize fixtures and even, in some cases, the art.
“We paid $12,000 to fix some lighting that was damaged,” Le said.
Apparently, a person who was trying to sleep on a bench near the murals felt that the light intended to illuminate the artwork was too harsh for his or her eyes. And so the person dismantled it, Le said.
But all the artwork and light fixtures are pretty secure and well-monitored now. The bench has been taken away.
This month, the city sponsored its fourth recent mural project.
“We want to honor our local artists,” Le said. “We support murals. We look forward to having more murals in the city.”
Some question how the city handles requests for proposals for public art and whether initial offers of payment actually match the final checks.
Duran and Herrera acknowledge those concerns but ultimately brush them off. They actually get a lot of enjoyment out of creating murals, and they do them for free almost every weekend anyway.
“It upholds itself. Our work is really a big contribution to the city,” Herrera said. “There are people who are trying to downplay it, but how can you downplay it if you have folks coming in from the international news?”
Herrera said he likes having an impact on passers by, especially young people. “We like it when kids ask us to hit their books, take pictures, or see the connection of the ladybugs,” he said.
Duran said she and her partner like to visit classrooms once in a while and talk about their craft. “It’s weird when you see how you impact kids. It’s so weird,” she said. “I don’t feel that old. But it’s interesting.”
“These (murals) are actually built for the community,” Herrera said. “We’re not so much about catering to the people, but I like using the word ‘empowering’ the people.”
Clarification: A section of this story about disputes between artists and the city on payment for civic art has been updated because of open questions about how payments to artists are handled. As such, the issue is being explored on its own.
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.