All my life, while driving, biking or walking along Fountain Avenue, I’ve always seen it: The image of a mustachioed old man on a wall with wavy, spaghetti-like white hair staring in a gaze towards the east.
Many people have (understandably) mistaken the man for 20th century scientist Albert Einstein. But somehow I’ve always known it wasn’t him, though the real identity of The Man On The Wall still eluded me. Until today.
While headed to a nearby vacuum repair shop, I saw a couple people working on the mural, so I had to talk to them for answers. I not only got my answer, but I got quite a bunch of stories too.
“Are you the artist?” I asked the bearded, grey-haired man pulling out jars of paint from the trunk of his car. “Yes, I am,” he replied, almost matter-of-factly, with a hint of pride yet devoid of pretense.
It turns out during conversation this man was none other than muralist Kent Twitchell, who has emblazoned his iconic imagery on walls around Los Angeles for the past four decades. He painted the towering image of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra overlooking drivers on the Harbor Freeway on a Downtown parking garage, as well as many other murals. By far his most famous work was “The Freeway Lady” mural in Angelino Heights that overlooked the 101 freeway for years (since decimated by tagging, unfortunately). When he mentioned that to me I was about to kneel down and bow to the guy. I almost felt guilty that I hadn’t known his name before, but fortunately his down-to-earth demeanor kept that from being an issue.
The East Hollywood mural on the southwest corner of Kingsley and Fountain avenues smack dab in front of us is actually of actor Strother Martin, best known for this line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke:
Twitchell described Martin as “One of the great character actors of the 1960s” and was such a big fan of Martin, he began to paint the mural in September of 1971 (the mural is two months older than me!).
“I loved Strother Martin, it was the hippie days, I was sympathetic [to his characters],” Twitchell said.
Eventually, the actor saw the mural and struck up a 9-year friendship with the muralist until Martin’s death in 1980. The actor even posed for a headshot image of himself that was originally painted towards the left of the original mural (since blackened out). I guess you can say mural art was the social networking of the 1970s.
The mural has been restored and repainted over the years, assisted by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. It was originally done with enamel paint and was re-done with acrylics. Today’s version was last restored circa 2003. This time around, Twitchell and his son Artie are painstakingly restoring the mural back to its original 1970s look, with the help of a newly-formulated anti-graffiti fluid (a milk-like substance in a plastic jar labeled, “Invisi-Seal Protect”) and gel designed by someone who lives in the same Downtown L.A. apartment building where the artist lives.
“You just put some on, and the graffiti just wipes right off,” said Twitchell.
The artist said that the anti-graffiti fluid and gel haven’t yet been marketed. Perhaps this might be a successful solution to vandalism and blight one day.
I briefly told him about my community organizing activities and that I had designed the bumper sticker. He told me it was given to him by a local businessowner that turned out to be a friend of mine, Mino Jegalian, who is aiming to turn the former Grasshopper Bar on Fountain and Normandie into a combination coffeehouse/beer & wine pub.
“I’ve always considered this neighborhood to be ‘East Hollywood,'” said Twitchell, who was based in Echo Park for most of his career until the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. “This neighborhood has always had a unique character…it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in L.A.”
Awesome. Likewise, I told him that his Strother Martin mural is a neighborhood landmark, an artistic gem. As we exchanged contact info, he asked me to sign the “I <3 East Hollywood” bumper sticker. I was flattered nevertheless. I should be asking an artist like him to sign something.
As I left him to finish his mural restoration, I reflected on what an awesome moment it was to have a conversation with one of this city’s most renowned and celebrated muralists, especially sharing some of the stories behind his work. Every picture tells a story, the saying goes. But I would hasten to add that every mural tells a thousand more.