Harry Gamboa Jr., Willie Herron, Gronk, Patssi Valdez & friends— they did great work then—they didn’t go away.

They painted cracks on the sidewalk and the walls broke open; their murals walked out down Whittier Blvd.

They’re doing it still. Nothing stopped ’em. This is live!



There’s a tribute to Asco coming to UCLA’s Fowler gallery in 2011, check it out. They could get more real serious reckoning & review.




I wrote an introduction to Willie Herron’s exhibit at Galeria Tropico de Nopal a couple years ago. Maybe I can find it and post it here. Willie’s work especially meant a lot to me when we were in high school. We went to Wilson High in El Sereno, and he was already an artist. I saw pieces of one his murals leaning against the wall in Mrs. Gaitzsch, the German art teacher’s room—I recognized it from the neighborhood—we both grew up in City Terrace. Check out his “Wall That Cracked Open” behind Plaza Market in City Terrace Drive; it’s maybe the best mural in the city, or in the state. He demonstrated that you could be an artist in the community. You might be able to survive, actually live positively and contribute positively to the community through art. Against the war in Vietnam, and the wars at home in the neighborhood, you might survive (that in itself came as a surprise) and make an actual contribution to helping people live. Willie, Gronk, Harry, Patssi and the other artists who came and went through Asco have been doing that their whole lives.

There’s more discussion of this older work going on lately, with some momentum given by 2008’s L.A. County Art Museum exhibit “Phantom Sightings: Art After to the Chicano Movement,” re-examining some crucial sources and essential concepts, of which Asco turns out to be a seminal spark.

I first saw their work, Willie’s and Gronk’s, on buildings around East L.A., at Farmacia Hildalgo, maybe getting a 15 cents soda in Eva’s Liquor’s and going round back in the alley and checking out Willie’s mural, wowed by that visual prayer for his brother Johnny, who was in my classes at City Terrace Elementary. Their collaboration on the Chicano Moratorium: the Black and White Mural produced the visual equivalent of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” played during the Vietnam War. It’s weathered now, but has lost none of it’s bitter relevance. Life during wartime.

Go there some cool evening, Estrada Courts housing project, 3221 East Olympic Blvd., East L.A., with the parents of a girl screaming at some older guy to get away from her or they’ll kill him at the fenceline—it’ll be a trip.


Here’s the intro to the Willie Herron show at Tropico de Nopal:

Visionary Original: Willie Herron

Our childhood was punctuated by assassinations. When president JFK was assassinated, the school played the announcement on the public address system and my teacher cried. When Malcolm X was assassinated, newspapers implied he got what was coming. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, there were riots in cities across America. When Robert F. Kennedy (who had marched with Cesar Chavez) was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, some Chicanos felt it like yet another body blow of death in the same Catholic family. The Vietnam War went on and on and they announced the tallies of young American dead (not the Vietnamese) on TV every week. Students were killed in campus protests and protestors at the Chicano Moratorium Against the war, as well as Ruben Salazar, reporting for the L.A. Times.. In 1970 my father was shot at work in Watts by a black kid who used a high-powered rifle to shoot at everyone on the street. My dad spent a year in a body cast from his ankles to his chest, and he spent another year convalescing and learning to walk again, but the rest of us did not expect necessarily to survive. It seemed to many of us that it we would not live long if we stood for anything important, anything that mattered, and especially not if we tried to make any difference.

The violence that continually welled up out of the heart of America was without end. Maybe this was the real America—the America that native peoples, informed by genocide, had known all long. AM radio played Dion’s pop tune crooned with sappy melancholy that went,

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? 
Can you tell me where he’s gone? 
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill…
 with Abraham, Martin, and John

But that didn’t help. We did not see ourselves strolling over a sunny hill holding hands with MLK, RFK and JFK while Disney cartoon birds chirped overhead, and Porky Pig got ready to stammer, “Th-tha-tha-that’s all folks!”

Life Magazine displayed full color spreads of piles of bodies, 500 unarmed men, women and children machine-gunned on the paths and ditches of My Lai, and television went on reporting the slaughter without comment, as if it was that which was to be expected, and not a single soldier would ever go to prison for murdering a Vietnamese and it was what we expected.

What did we know? There were alternatives. In City Terrace ELA, even in his teens, Willie Herron was articulating a radical vision, a blast of Mexican muralism, pocho defiance, and agit-prop cultural activism. Probably at the time I must have thought that Willie along Chicano movement leaders and secret agents went to some cadre school by boat to Cuba or in the Bolivian jungle to train in identity strategies and existential self-defense. Crawling from the wreck of a family that had crashed and burnt on arrival in ELA shortly before the Watt’s riots of 1965, I was trying to get through my last years of high school, expecting to die or expecting to be sent to Vietnam to kill or to die, and I was heartened and inspired to see—as if born full-grown from his own forehead—Willie Herron’s studio on City Terrace Drive set up in a storefront across from Eva’s Liquors with a matched set of portraits in the window, a 1940/50s couple in zoot suit and coiffed bouffant hairdo, elegantly stylish and poised, confronting the viewer in front of a mysterious black curtain. That was the stark presentation, and to me it said, “No explanations, no apologies. This is it. This is who we are. Deal.”

I recognized Willie’s murals when I saw them going up around ELA too. My parents had been art students—my dad, Anglo World War 2 vet who’d seen service in North Africa and returned to study painting with Clifford Still, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, a Beat generation Buddhist who met my mom, a Nisei who’d been interned during the war at Poston, Arizona—but in the face of our family breakup on one hand and a community and nation in crisis on the other, the drunken Buddhism of years on the road and the abstract expressionism of paintings discarded all the way from Oakhurst to San Francisco to Southern California did not seem to provide either terms for personal survival or family self-defense in the times we were faced with. Maybe those artistic notions had worked in the fifties, before all those bottles of booze. Maybe not any more though, and I could see in every facet and detail of Willie Herron’s work, however, here was an articulated political aesthetic that integrated the issues of community, artist, and culture. The roles of these terms were clearly worked out in the imagery, technique, location and message itself. This is an artist who makes work which exists—and lives—in our world, on its street corners, in alleys, in storefronts, on the avenues. Here was an artist who was working out terms on which we too might yet survive in this place. I was impressed and instructed at once by his work.

Willie’s murals—impressing me even at midnight visiting a girlfriend in Ramona Gardens, crossing White Fence territory to try to see her, strolling through the blockhouse projects to inspect murals on the end of each row where it met the street—Willie’s bravura draughtsmanship was recognizable. Also emblazoned in a trajectory of historic faces across the front of Farmacia Hidalgo on my endless peregrinations and wanderings up and down City Terrace Drive—these were my first intimations of a whole tradition of Siqueiros or Rivera murals in public locations like the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City or the Orozco ‘Man on Fire’ in the orphanage in Guadalajara, which I hadn’t even heard of, let alone seen for myself. Late one afternoon, in one of those last years of high school in one of the art classrooms of a certain Mrs Gaitzsch, the art teacher, I came across, stored on the floor along the wall a mural that had been painted on diagonal, maybe triangular, panels, and in the darkened empty classroom I recognized Willie Herron’s imagery. It was dismantled, out of order, random, but struck by it, I walked back and forth in front of it. It was unmistakably Willie Herron. Instructive, because real.

You could see it in the street, in the alley behind Plaza Market (his legendary “Wall That Cracked Open,” that visionary, almost hallucinatory response to the near fatal stabbing of his brother Johnny, who’d been my classmate at City Terrace Elementary) or the serpentine kitty corner to the public library, or—another legendary piece—a newsreel of a mural (as if directed by Fellini) depicting the outrageous violence of the sheriffs’ attack on the Chicano Moratorium in Cinemascope black and white in Estrada Courts. Years later when friends visited from out of town, these were among the only landmarks I would take them to see. Willie Herron’s art was the clearest, most intelligent response—and a way forward—out of years whose savagery, then, was not yet over.

And we did not know if we would survive.

Some of us will. And, meantime, Willie Herron’s art always did, and does, indicate a way forward.

Sesshu Foster
Los Angeles, 2005