Why do Graffiti Writers Write on Murals? The Birth, Life, and Slow Death of Freeway Murals in Los Angeles


For three decades graffiti writers have marked the Olympic Festival freeway murals painted in celebration of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles (LA). These high-profile murals, which once symbolized LA’s status as the ‘Mural Capital of the World’, became palimpsests on which graffiti writers painted their monikers, perhaps unwittingly contributing to their eventual destruction. Local government, muralists and residents have bemoaned the murals’ slow death, though have not been able to identify or understand the motives for such vandalism, interpreting it as ‘mindless’, ‘animalistic’ vandalism perpetrated by ‘kids’ who simply lack respect. I argue that the burial of these murals under layers of paint must be understood in the context of competing claims made to public space. Relying on rare personal interviews with the graffiti writers who participated in their destruction, I answer the question ‘Why do graffiti writers write on murals?’, while situating the birth and life of the Olympic murals within a larger historical discussion about Chicano/a mural making, urbanization, freeway construction, and the growth of the graffiti subculture in the United States’ paradigmatic global city.