Latino heritage is celebrated every day through the larger-then-life murals of some of Pacoima’s favorite sons — actor Danny Trejo, rock-and-roll legend Ritchie Valens, Mission Hills native actor Cheech Marin and popular actor Edward James Olmos along with the “Lady of the Valley,” “Girl With a Hoop Earring,” and more.
This work with his take on the great masters is among what is now known as the impressive “Mural Mile,” a stretch of stunning large scale public art murals along Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.
Behind the images is artist Levi Ponce, 28, a Pacoima native who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art from California State University, Northridge and who now has become a highly respected figure in the world of present day mural painting.
Ponce is spearheading a continuation of an art form steeped in Mexican and Mexican American history that seeks to bring culture, art and pride to the public masses. While Ponce’s work isn’t the same brand of mural art made famous by Diego Rivera, David Alvaro Siqueiros or Jose Clemente Orozco that inspired social revolution, Ponce’s talent still sends a powerful message.
“Hollywood has always immortalized world famous entertainers and put them up on walls. I wanted to take Latino icons and put them on the walls like they do, so that we could feel represented as Latinos. Because we’re here and we should be represented,” Ponce said of the work he’s been doing the past several years.
Ponce, whose father is from El Salvador and mother from Guatemala, said his Latino heritage is inevitably in all of his works, often a combination of themes and forms.“
Latino heritage encompasses so much culture from around the world. We have Incan, Mayan and Aztec blood, and Latinos are so beautiful because we’re a combination of all kinds of people. We’re very unique that way. While other cultures are very isolated, we have French, Spanish, African and Asian influences. You have it all and that’s what makes us beautiful; we’re a melting pot.”
The Start In Pacoima
Ponce learned the art of painting from his father Hector, “a phenomenal painter” whose work has taken him around the world adorning business facades.
He said he began painting the murals in Pacoima because it was his home town, the neighborhood he grew up in, and what he knew best.
“I started painting in Pacoima, because I believed it was under represented in the art. When I was in school, when I tried to paint, they told me we couldn’t do it. There was so much negativity associated with this part of the Valley,” he said.
Ponce has also spent a year teaching at the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy’s ArTES Magnet in the City of San Fernando. Called the “Levi Project,” the artist — not too much older than the students he taught — emphasized having “an affection for your community and sharing it” through a love of art.
“I wanted Pacoima to be known for the arts, and the arts to be known in Pacoima,” Ponce said.
And he’s succeeded.
The accolades and recognition began as soon as he finished his first work. His public work is admired for bringing a decisively modern look, reflecting the Latinos of today.
“When people think of art districts, they think of downtown L.A., and Pacoima,” Ponce said.
“When I drive down the boulevard (Van Nuys) I never imagined that you [could] open a business in Pacoima, and you look for a mural on the wall.”
Besides the positive attention they bring to a neighborhood long associated with social and economic problems, the murals have remained graffiti-free — something that doesn’t surprise Ponce.
“People are proud of their neighborhoods because they help shape it. They take ownership. I [help to] give them ownership, they can change it for the better,” he said.
“If I went to your house and painted it pink, you’dnbe angry, but you would be very happy and proud if I asked you to help me.”
The “Mural Mile” helps give Pacoima a new image and is something that kids in Pacoima can be proud of, Ponce said. “Before you didn’t have anything to brag about. Now you say ‘I live where all the murals are.’ It gives them something to be proud of, and when you proud of your neighborhood you’re less likely to go and vandalize it.”
“Taggers” and vandals have helped Ponce paint many of his murals. Now some of those kids are using their spray cans to beautify their neighborhoods with their own murals, Ponce said.
Ponce’s works have brought him recognition locally and worldwide. Recently, he did a 100-ft long piece detailing the history of North Hollywood. Over the summer he also helped students from Birmingham High School paint a mural in honor of the journalist and former student Daniel Pearl, who was killed in Pakistan.
In August he was invited on a muralist exchange project in Turkey. Painters from that country traveled to the San Fernando Valley to paint a mural while Ponce did the same in Turkish buildings.
“It was amazing,” Ponce said of the trip and experience.
But whether painting a scene in Venice Beach or across the country in Istanbul, his Latino heritage is an intrinsic part of his paintings, Ponce said.
“It’s inevitable. I can’t help but look at things through my Latino eye. Whether it’s technique, religion, you’ll find an underlying Latino theme in all of my works. It could be an abstract texture influenced by Native American or Inca art, but it’s there,” he said.
Next up for Ponce is a 200-ft long work at the Chrysalis office along Van Nuys Boulevard, across from the Pacoima City Hall, and a 500-ft long piece along San Fernando Road, next to the 118 freeway.
But Ponce is also looking ahead.
He sees himself not only painting murals but facilitating artwork, enabling others to paint and organizing the creation of public art.
“I’m just one person. I can’t paint all the murals, but I have the ability to enable 100 people to paint walls,” Ponce said.
Whatever he does, it’s all with a Latino touch.
“Latinos are very strong when it comes to the arts. We should be expressing ourselves in the arts a lot more. We’re very colorful people,” Ponce said.
As colorful as the “Mural Mile” paintings along Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima.