Generations confer over La Peña's second skin

Robert Trujillo connects with original La Peña artist O'Brien Thiele over a campaign to re-do its historic facade.

I'm sitting in on a meeting between two generations of muralists. In name, our encounter was designed as an interview about La Peña Cultural Center's plans to redo its decades-old facade, a historic piece that right now is a 3-D tableau named "Song of Unity" and meant to represent the people of North and South America coming together in art.

But it has become clear to me the interviewer that's it's way more momentous to let these groups talk largely unimpeded by my questions. Two people who created the mural in 1978 are speaking with two people who will design its rebirth in 2012 about changes in the world of street art over the last 34 years. It's the first time the four have met together. Assasinated Chilean artist-activist Victor Jara's detached hands strum a guitar in silent soundtrack over us as we sit on folding chairs in front of the mural in question. 

In contrast to his "Song of Unity's" figurative style, "graffiti is an abstract art," says Osha Neumann.

Neumann was able to pay his original mural crew largely with funds from government-sponsored community arts program meant to train and employ creative types. La Peña's wasn't the only piece the group worked on -- they also masterminded the piece on Berkeley's Amoeba Music and a large wall at People's Park. Their work was inspired, he says, by the school of Mexican muralists that included Diego Rivera, José Orozco -- the masters that gave birth to the last mural renaissance in the United States. 

Osha Neumann, Cece Carpio, and O'Brien Thiele -- two generations of La Peña artists. All Guardian photos by Caitlin Donohue

"Song of Unity" was meant to illustrate the coming-together of two continents through activist culture, at a time with US interventionism in Latin America was reaching a fevered pitch of corruption and when Bay Areans and Latin American refugees were coming together to form La Peña. It was a heavy moment. Jara's hands, by way of illustration, are portrayed severed from his body for a reason. After the 1973 Chilean coup, they were said to have been cut from his body by military junta.

"Graffiti has no connection at all to the work of the Mexican muralists," Neumann continues in response to my question about how street art has changed since his time.

"Graffiti artists don't usually work collectively," adds O'Brien Thiele, Neumann's co-artist.

But here, Robert Trujillo must step in. Trujillo is a member of the Trust Your Struggle collective, the team of California-bred young people that have been elected to take up this historic mantle.

"But there are graffiti crews that are really well-established," he interjects gently. "CPS from Los Angeles. TKO and MSK have crews worldwide. These are the groups that pioneered graffiti art on the West Coast."

Trujillo should know -- in a time in which street art has come into vogue and become a big-money game, TYS is a sterling example of what is still great about the genre. TYS travels the world connecting with communities in parts of the developing world like Latin America and the Phillipines. It uses graffiti-inspired murals to illustrate social problems, solutions. The center already bears the group's mark -- its superlative Cafe Valparaiso, which serves Chilean food at lunch and dinner, is adorned with a striking mural done by TYS members.


"When you're in school, writing on the walls -- that's the thing they tell you not to do," Trujillo tells us, by way of explaining the power of graffiti. "You don't have a voice. With graffiti, suddenly you have a voice. People have to realize that it exists because of society." He pauses, then hits upon an eloquent sum-up. "Graffiti is the perfect answer to society."

"This is a really huge project for us," says TYS member Cece Carpio. Carpio is La Peña's program manager, one of many ties the local group has to the center. "This is a place of gathering. [With the new mural] we want to honor the history of Latin American activism here, but also the diversity that the place has now."

This comes to the heart of why La Peña wants a new mural. Certainly, "Song of Unity" is in bad shape. It is crumbling at the junctures of its panels. Water is seeping in through the cracks, a death sentence for its three-dimensional figures. 

"Song of Unity" today

But perhaps even more importantly, the re-envisioning of the center's facade will represent something rather extraordinary -- that a radical institution that has been relevant in this community for decades has found itself in the hands of a new, dedicated generation.

La Peña's programming has continued to diversify. Upcoming events include July 13's Asian Rock Fest and this year has seen the fifth year of Queendom, DJ Zita's all-female celebration of the five elements of hip-hop -- not to mention the Immigrant Voices Festival that brought openly undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas to the center last week. The Immigrant Voices Festival is a project explicitly sponsored by this "second generation" group -- referred to as LP2G by the center. 

"I was sorry when they said they wanted to take ["Song of Unity"] down," Neumann admits to the group that is assembled that sunny Sunday afternoon. "But they said they wanted new blood. What could I say to that?"

What indeed? Because if there is one good reason to donate to La Peña's campaign to step, facade-first, into the new generation of activism -- and you can! The last day to contribute to its Indie Gogo campaign is today, Mon/2 -- it is to celebrate that a radical institution started in the fire of the '70s has successfully found relevance today among the Internet generation. 

So what is TYS going to paint on this wall? Will it be three-dimensional, like Jara's memorialized fingers and guitar? The final design won't be determined until the collective's done more meetings like this with the community members of La Peña. But you can rest easy on one point. Says Trujillo: "We all know it's going to be fresh though."

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