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Color My World

A recently overturned LA ban on hand-painted murals is preserving a beautifcation effort aimed at one of the most blighted areas of the Valley. It’s also opening doors for a new wave of young artists focused on improving neighborhoods and boosting careers

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Your murals are the best part of my daily drive to work, nothing but pure inspiration to conquer the day at hand. Thank you!” That’s just one of several effusive fan comments adorning the Facebook page of muralist Levi Ponce. A notation on a Facebook photo of one of Kristy Sandoval’s self-created murals sunnily proclaims, “With a paintbrush in my hand and an idealist’s mind, I will create a more colorful world!”

Both Kristy and Levi are part of a dedicated crew of young art enthusiasts who, for the past few years, have quietly and diligently been changing the face of their beloved Northeast Valley neighborhood. Infamous in the ‘70s for gang activity, today Pacoima—just east of the 5 and south of the 118 and 210 intersection—is a tight-knit community. The changes started during the ‘90s with some citizen-led concerted activism, done in conjunction with police, which began having an impact on crime.

Levi Ponce with his larger-than-life creations.

Synergy also seems to be driving the latest round of community improvements—a team effort aimed at replacing graffiti-filled walls with colorful, glorious murals painted by accomplished, talented artists. Dozens have popped up on walls across the city, and more are in the works. Dubbed the Valley’s “Mural Mile” by KCET, close to 30 hand-painted murals can be spotted along a mile and a half of Van Nuys Boulevard, between Arleta and Norris Avenues.

Delighted by the murals in his ’hood, about 16 months ago local business owner Raphael Andrade of Myke’s Café decided the exterior wall of his newly opened restaurant needed a fresh face. He wanted something “bright and colorful that matched the theme of my café.”

Raphael asked around and kept hearing the name Kristy Sandoval. He contacted her and hired her, along with Ramiro “Rah” Hernandez, to create “Mi Vida, Mi Cultura.” Completed in July 2012, the vivid imagery was created as a collaborative design with El Nido Family Center’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) program, which provided materials and volunteers. Depicting happy children riding bikes and playing music, a boy clutching a book peels back the landscape to reveal icons of his cultural origins, representing the life and culture of youth today.

“That wall had been painted with gang markings and other stuff a couple of times. But since Kristy painted it, it hasn’t been touched by gangs or taggers. For graffiti artists, it is a matter of respecting someone they view as a fellow artist. I think everyone in this community—even the gang members—likes what artists like Kristy are doing here,” Raphael shares.

Kristy’s mural, as it turns out, sparked a formative collaboration. The newer work was obliterating an older one by well-known LA sign painter and artist Hector Ponce. (His murals include the five-story high James Olmos portrait near MacArthur Park). As a courtesy, she contacted Hector’s 26-year-old son Levi Ponce—another local muralist—to let him know.

Recalls Kristy, “I invited Levi out, and he helped us and we just got to know each other.” Kristy returned the favor, picking up brushes to assist Levi with his Mona Lisa project down the street. Entitled “Pacoima Art Revolution,” the 22’-by-24’ work depicts a Mona Lisa reimagined as a charro (a Mexican cowboy), clutching a sword and wearing a sombrero with a rifle slung across her back.