October 06, 2014

Sociology, Murals, and Communities

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you seen any murals in your community? If so, do you know what they depict? Do you know the history behind them? Finding such murals can be a good exercise for your sociological imagination.

There is one mural right next door to my college: The Great Wall of Los Angeles. It is a half-mile long, located along the interior wall of the Los Angeles River – yes, our river runs within a concrete channel, built to control the unruly flow of water. With our current state of drought, however, we don’t have much water flowing so we can see the entire mural!


Photo courtesy of Kevin Raskoff

From the web site of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC):

The Great Wall is a landmark pictorial representation of the history of ethnic peoples of California from prehistoric times to the 1950’s, conceived by SPARC’S artistic director and founder Judith F. Baca. Begun in 1974 and completed over five summers, the Great Wall employed over 400 youth and their families from diverse social and economic backgrounds working with artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and hundreds of community members.

Those who worked on it included “youths referred by the criminal justice department” as well as artists and historians. The Great Wall depicts the history of the area, from the Jurassic period up to almost present day. The panels depict specific decades or time periods, in order, with major events highlighted. The focus is on the indigenous peoples and ethnic groups whose history is not always included in various historical records. There are plans to keep it going and update with new decades once they are designed.

I encourage students to visit it and, if we have time, we go as a class to view the mural, discuss it, and tie it to our course materials on race, ethnicity, gender, immigration, and other issues. We can also dissect the creation and maintenance of the mural as its inception, using community youth with criminal histories as the muralists, is quite unique. Thus the youth criminal justice system, deviance, and life chances are all good topics to analyze in this context.

Another mural that I’ve seen is in Pacific Grove, California, a lovely beach town set between Monterey and Carmel in central California.   The Pacific Grove Historical Mural Project  runs along Ocean View Boulevard next to a coastal walkway and bike path.

The mural is done mostly in calming earth tones, and, like the Great Wall, depicts life from the indigenous peoples and beyond. It was intended as a “wall of reconciliation” as it mentions racial and ethnic populations and specific facts from their history in the area.

This includes an acknowledgement of how life changed for the native population when Europeans arrived. Another panel describes the Chinese immigrants, their economic contribution and how their Chinatown was mysteriously burned in 1906 and the population “moved on.” (See photos)

Those who live and work in the area may not even notice either of these murals. Their placement is subtle yet powerful once you see them, read them, and appreciate them.

Finding historical evidence of the issues of immigration in a community mural provides an opportunity to learn about the history of that place and to bring sociological concepts, theories, and perspectives alive. Public art is one of many places in which we can see the difficult and terrible histories of oppression and better understand it, especially when this art is placed in the context of a sociological lens.


I am from India. While reading your blog article, I realized that murals depicting various cultures and races are also prevalent in many cities here, especially in South India. Earlier when i used to travel in those cities, I just ignored them or looked at them perfunctorily. But, your article has provided me a great insight about them and now, I have decided to spend more time observing them whenevr I come across them.

When I read Professor Raskoff’s blog on murals, it pretty much changed my ideas about street art. I always thought that murals on street walls was a sign of the city’s deterioration, and it made a city look dirty and downtrodden. This blog actually make me look at murals in a different way. I decided to look for murals close to my home. I did not think there were any murals in Encino, California, but I was wrong. About two blocks away from my home there was a beautiful mural I had never noticed. On an underpass on Havenhurst in between Burbank Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard is a beautiful mural I realized had been there for years and yet I never really noticed it. The mural depicted a sardine can rolled open with smashed cars on the on the inside. How beautiful it was, and I couldn’t believe that until now I never noticed it.
Upon during some research on this mural I found that it was painted in 1975 by Sandy Bleifer and it’s called “Can of Cardines”. It was a whimsical view of traffic in a terribly trafficky area. Sandy Bleifer is a native Californian who studied art at UCLA. She is currently an artist-in-residence at some local schools.

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