The Los Angeles mural renaissance of Kobe’s death.

Los Angeles is not a monolith. Anyone who has lived in the city knows this fact well. There is no majority demographic. LA is a city of diverse races, political leanings, religious beliefs, and cultural movements. Angelenos like to be heard, to discuss, and to express. To have a passion is to breathe in LA. The city is loud with opinion.

One expressive group of Angelenos is, of course, artists; particularly, muralists. LA has a storied tradition of mural art. The countless muralists of LA once dubbed the city the uncontested Mural Capital of the World. In a city where travel by car is virtually necessary, a picture that you can take in — in seconds — is truly worth a thousand words. Drive her streets, and you would see stories celebrating the history of Latinos in California or lamenting their struggles. Walk her roads and see painted eulogies for creators that have graced the streets — including Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, and Stan Lee. Sit by her walls and view pictures warning on-lookers of the importance of the future devastation of climate change.¹ The city is loud with opinion.

Muralistic tradition is one that many communities hold dear — particularly communities of color. Let’s be honest — white people rarely decide to impart important cultural messages through panoramas. Our culture takes apart concepts and analyzes the heck out of them. It is a distinctly white form of communication. We do not like to leave room for mystery and self-reflection. Murals tell a story that leaves space for questions or prompts finding someone to ask. They are frescos of a peoples’ collective history.

In 2002, due to a concern for over-commercializing the streets of LA with advertisements, and illegal paintings on private property, the city officially banned mural painting. The ordinance was a devastating blow to the muralist community.

In 2011, Hollywood’s artsy pretty boy James Franco was able to skirt the ban and take his creative prowess to the streets, painting a promotional mural for his comedy “The Interview” in Venice Beach. Franco’s painting exception was a privileged moment, and the remaining LA facades were left to taggers and gutsy muralists.

In 2013, the Los Angeles City Council voted to overturn the 11-year mural ban. When the moratorium lifted, people predicted pent-up artists would go balls to the walls and leave no concrete canvas uncovered. Yet in a transient and ever-growing city, eleven years is a long time. Artists had taken a hit in keeping space in the city to express themselves — gentrification.³

It’s no secret that neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Westlake, Downtown, Pico Union, and Boyle Heights, to name a few, are experiencing rapid gentrification. Expression in a public art form is not as appreciated among gentrified communities. It is controversial and is covered up. Wealthy white people came into these communities and whitewashed the walls.

Additionally, the lifted mural moratorium came with red tape. To be approved for public painting, one must acquire a permit — this involves an application, community meeting attendance, presentation, and a fee. Permits have a $60 price tag, and presentations and meetings take an extended amount of time and planning. The fee covers upkeep and a guarantee of no advertising. These are well-intentioned laws, yet ones that push out the starving artist and the people who began this LA tradition — Latinos and African Americans. The former LA Mural Capital of the World sometimes seems like it will be part of a lost era forever. One doleful event, however, has redeemed part of LA’s mural convention.

In a tragic helicopter accident on Jan. 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others, were killed. The event sent shock waves throughout the world. That may sound hyperbolic, but Kobe’s impact touched every country. I remember exactly where I was at that moment. And yes, I started crying. One of the greatest basketball players of all time³ was gone in an instant.

For thousands of people, Kobe was more than an electrifying player — he was an inspiration to get up in the morning. He inspired people to do rep after rep of the mundane. He stimulated people to be unwaveringly resolute in their dreams.

You almost want to hate the man, so blessed with natural talent, good looks, and an obsessive dedication to being the best he can be every day. Who can compete with that triple threat? But also, who wants to hate on a 6ft 6in guy whose smile can simultaneously melt the hearts of kids, grandmas, and middle-aged white men?

It would be unfair for all of us to compare our lives’ trajectories to Kobe’s. Most basketball hopefuls are not born into families with former NBA-playing blood running through our veins. His heritage, in this way, is one of privilege. Yet, no one may say that he took his privilege and exploited it. No one may say that he coasted into the NBA and his accolades. He was an entrepreneur of his craft. He nicknamed himself and created the Mamba mentality.

Kobe once said, “The Mamba mentality is a way of life — it’s not an attitude. It’s a way to live. It’s just trying to get better every single day. It’s not something where you live with, a bravado — it’s just the simplest form of trying to get better at whatever that you’re doing.”

The man was dedicated to his game and the city of LA. He infected its people with his tenacity, his charisma, and his empathy for the individual. So it came as no surprise when Angelenos poured out their emotion on Jan. 26, 2020. The city is loud with feeling.

When Kobe passed on that grey day, Los Angeles mourned hard. Flowers covered the Staples Center. Your Instagram filled up with Kobe’s and Gigi’s faces. Tributes to a hero cropped up everywhere. The muralist community took it one step further. “Let’s paint the city purple.”

Commence balls to the walls, muralistic explosion. The Renaissance had begun again. Over the past year since Kobe and Gigi’s death, over 550 public murals in over 40 countries have been painted, immortalizing his legacy for at least a few years. Over 300 of these murals are in Southern California alone, and hundreds of them in LA.⁴ In the wild painting that has taken place in the wake of Kobe’s death, there have been many legal and illegal murals. An event like this caused amicable incitement to cover the city. It’s dazzling. The city is loud with feeling.

LA-based artist Chris Chanyang Shim’s homage. 800 E. 4th St., Los Angeles 90013

During this niche rivival — some artists have been commissioned for their time and effort, others have done it on their time and capital, but all have done it for Kobe. A sight to behold is a city coming together to beautify its streets with a legacy, an ideal. Muralist Jules Muck said of the phenomenon, “Their image becomes a statement. Kobe was like LA…the good part of LA, the thing people were so proud of.”⁵

As someone who grew up in particularly white spaces, where over-analyzation is the norm, this quiet but powerful transformation of city walls and full-size basketball courts is particularly moving. The city exploded in Lakers garb. We love to see it.

Map of Kobe murals in Southern California

These assiduous salutes are a testament to LA’s cultural and artistic history — and the Mamba mentality. Through this cataclysmic year, Kobe’s death has been a catalyst in a vibrant mural tradition for pushing the boundaries and persevering. He would be proud to see his city come alive together.

[1]: Jessica Stewart. (Oct. 28 2018). Interview: artist keeps community cultures alive through vibrant mural art

[2]: Javier Rojas. (Oct. 15 2020). L.A. was the mural capital of the world, what happened?

[3]: ESPN. (Jan. 14 2016). All-time #nbarank: the greatest players ever

[4]: Mike Asner. Mural map

[5]: Josh Peter. (Jan. 22 2021). Kobe Bryant murals fill los angeles landscape

HB, CA based. Art, culture, California.