In 1980, a group of Chicano artists dubbed the “East Los Streetscapers” were awarded a commission from Shell Oil to paint a mural alongside a gas station in a neighborhood of Los Angeles. What they produced was a provocative take on consumerism, community cultural heritage, and exploitation of the natural environment titled “Filling Up On Ancient Energies.”
The mural juxtaposed images of dinosaurs and ancient Mayans next to gas-guzzling cars driven by modern-day Chicanos, pointing out to gas station patrons the implications of their consumptive act. But beyond that, Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher argue in Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals, the murals of East Los Streetscapers were produced in a formative period of Chicano identity and ideology (chicanismo). They are worth more than the sum of their parts because they resonate with a community actively navigating issues of cultural identity, assimilation, and both political and social activism against oppression.
When it was destroyed without warning in 1988, the artists sued. They argued that it ought to have been relocated, preserved via paint transfer, or at least documented and archived. Archives of these types of artworks do exist. But the issues of preserving these public works of art is thornier and more complex, to my mind, than appears at first blush.
Archives have so many limitations. One of which is that, by nature, they try desperately to nail down dynamic entities to an orderly and fixed point in time. This mural was inextricably linked to the context of the time, place, and audience of its creation. Despite a lip-service devotion to respect des fonds, archivists could not possibly preserve the full contextual value of “Filling Up on Ancient Energies.” Archived, whether by relocation, image transfer onto another medium, or in photographic form, the mural loses its living, public quality. It becomes just another piece of art.
Philadelphia’s MuralArts and other public art organizations debate these types of issues daily. I don’t know what an acceptable alternative might be, and I’m certainly not an expert in the field. But I’m personally in favor of letting murals and street art be as they are, fading into ghost signage or acquiring graffiti because they are an integral yet changing part of an urban environment which