This Massive Mural Being Painted In Downtown Celebrates LA's Diversity — And Could Set A World Record
Most days, you can see Robert Vargas hanging from the side of a 12-story building in the heart of downtown L.A., harnessed to a scaffold, paint brush in hand, working on what he hopes will be the largest mural in the world by a single artist. But it's taking him longer than he expected.
"The wall got bigger," he said with a laugh in a recent interview with KPCC's Take Two. "I've painted more square footage than the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, so I'm moving."
The space is 60,000 square feet in size — bigger than a football field (the current record-holding mural is in Spain, according to Guiness World Records). It towers above the Pershing Square Metro station at the corner of 5th and Hill streets. Between his other projects and trips abroad, Vargas has spent about eight of the last 13 months painting the wall since he started the mural last August.
With a project this big, it's clear he spends a lot of time here. It seems he can't walk by without running into someone he knows, stopping to chat with Metro employees and exchanging hellos with people who he's seen around the station before.
But this mural isn't the only reason Vargas is pretty much a fixture downtown. A lot of his other art is here, too, including the "Our Lady of DTLA" mural on 6th and Spring. He painted her five years ago, in the midst of downtown's revitalization, to welcome people to a changing city.
Having grown up nearby in Boyle Heights, Vargas feels a parental responsibility toward the art he produces in L.A. and said it was important to him that his current project "is a great representation of the diversity that L.A. has to offer."
He named the mural in progress "Angelus," — pronounced the same way as Los Angeles — but changed the spelling so it means "Angel-us." As in: "We are all Angelenos, we are all one."
One year into production, the left side of the wall shows the face of a Tongva Indian girl wearing a cowry shell necklace and an elaborate headdress. She's the center of the mural, representing the original natives who lived in the L.A. Basin.
Above her, three winged angels gracefully extend their arms and legs. The face of one angel is modeled after Vargas' mother. Another is a member of L.A.'s gender non-conforming community, holding a scale of justice as a nod to gender equality.
The third angel is a homeless woman who Vargas often sees across the street at Pershing Square.
"She's an African American woman and typically when I look at images of angels, they're not painted to look like her or I or someone of color," he said. So, one day he asked her to model for him.
"Here's someone who is living on the street [with] not much hope now (becoming) a beacon for hope, here overlooking the city," he said.
Vargas still needs to paint a lot of the mural, including local boxing hero Oscar De La Hoya, an ancient Sycamore tree and other images of the city's rich history. Right now, that part of the wall is blank because Vargas paints without grids or projections — just his brush and the canvas.
"It's really about establishing a relationship with the wall and I've always had a really good sense of spatial depth when I'm working," he said.
Nearly six stories high, standing right next to the right eye of the mural's indigenous Tongva girl, this natural sense of dimensions is even more impressive, especially when you consider how accurate he has to be painting in the summer heat, conditions where it seems the wall is "baking the paint," he explained.
Vargas was painting during the record-breaking heat wave earlier this summer and learned to adjust to the weather by either working faster or using more water.
"With a wall like this that has a lot of sun exposure, you want to get as much pigment on the wall as you can, so working with too much water is not really an option," he said.
But before Vargas ever takes out a brush or climbs onto the scaffold, he stands across the street to look at what he's painted so far. Often he's joined by the people who'd spent the night in Pershing Square.
"Believe it or not, they're quite the connoisseurs, the art aficionados over here - and we have great, great conversations about the wall and just life and that actually anchors me and settles me into what I have to do for the day," he said. "And when I know I have that kind of support... I feel like I'm painting for something much bigger than myself. I may be painting the mural, but the mural is really for everyone."
Vargas plans to unveil the mural in a community celebration on Feb. 8, 2019. The next day, he says the wall will come alive with a subnarrative he's designed based on how the sunlight and shadows hit the wall on that day alone.
"There'll be about 15 sun positions that you can follow on that one day, February 9, that will lead your eye across the surface, from left to right, top to bottom," he said. "That's going to be hugely exciting."
As for what exactly the sun will reveal, Vargas said we'll just have to wait and see.