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Los Angeles Muralist Aims to Make a Big Mark

Artist Robert Vargas Paints Monumental Mural in Honor of Los Angeles
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Los Angeles artist Robert Vargas says he's fulfilling his destiny by painting a huge mural in his hometown. (A. Martinez/VOA)

Brushstroke by brushstroke, muralist Robert Vargas is telling the story of this changing metropolis, using the facade of a 14-story downtown apartment building as his canvas.

Vargas suggests the massive painting, an homage to his hometown, was inevitable.

He grew up in East Los Angeles "on a street called City View, and from my stoop, I had a clear sight line to the downtown L.A. skyline. So I think I was always destined to dream big and to paint big," Vargas said. "I'm fulfilling my destiny."

Vargas, of Mexican and Native American descent, began painting as a child. He studied at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, as well as New York's Pratt Institute. His art has taken him from doing portraits on local streets to crafting scenes abroad — in Australia, Japan and, most recently, the United Arab Emirates. He showcases his work on an Instagram account that identifies him as "Artist based in Downtown Los Angeles, but for the world!"

The scale of Vargas' painting has grown over time.

His current mural stretches more than 5,500 square meters (6,600 square yards) – painted freehand, without a preliminary grid or stencils. He works from the kind of adjustable platform used by window washers.

Vargas started painting the mural this summer and expects to finish it in early 2018. He's touting it, in numerous media interviews, as the largest done by a single artist. Guinness World Records has "received an application on Robert's behalf, but we have not received any further evidence for the claim," a spokeswoman told VOA in an emailed response.

Hope and inclusion

Vargas' mural depicts a multicultural metropolis.

"The message here is one of hope, one of inclusion, one of just kind of celebrating the diversity of Los Angeles – an allegory of the city, if you will," he said.

His mural is ripe with symbolism, such as the image of a Native American girl.

She's a Tongva Indian girl, one of "the original natives to inhabit the L.A. Basin," Vargas explained. Another figure will depict Oscar De La Hoya, "an Olympic gold medal winner who has led the charge in bringing the Olympics back in 2028."

De La Hoya, a lightweight boxer who won his medal in 1992, served on the committee that landed the future Summer Games for Los Angeles. Vargas will paint the boxer carrying an Olympic torch.

Angels for Los Angeles

The crowning figures for the mural, called "Angeles," are three angels.

"One of the angels up there, the one at the very top, is actually a portrait of my mother, the first person to introduce me to downtown L.A.," Vargas said.

Another was inspired by "a homeless woman [who] would hang out here every day," said the painter, later explaining that he wants to recognize residents who are losing ground in a gentrifying area. "… That's one way of uplifting someone through the creative process."

The mural is giving Vargas a boost, too.

"I'm just really excited about painting something this big," he said, "in the heart of the city where I grew up."