This past summer, the SPARC mural rescue team has been working hard to restore Judy Baca’s iconic mural “Hitting the Wall.” This public artwork tells the story of a milestone in women’s history that is the foundation to social discussions taking place in the Olympics today. Furthermore, the history of the mural’s restoration poetically parallels the challenges that many historically marginalized communities continue to endure. The mural restoration takes place as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics happens this summer and social activism is notably present at the games. The 2021 restoration was led by Carlos Rogel and Myisha Arellano, with support from Reba Castaneda, Kiara Machado, Joe Martinez, Lance Borowitz, Adam Boggs, Jose Dominguez Leon, Jennifer Kuberka, Philippe Previl, Lindsay Carron, Kevin Burgos, Leidy Gonzalez Lopez, and Dagoberto Perez.
Written By: Anastasia Yulo, 2021 Getty Marrow Intern
August 17, 2021
In 1984 Los Angeles hosted the Olympic games. It was a summer of unforgettable sports moments and lasting legacies. That same year, on the 4th street exit off the I-110 freeway, artist Judy Baca was documenting a huge milestone being made at the summer games. 1984 was the very first women’s Olympic marathon in history, and Baca worked to memorialize this moment in the form of public art. As part of the ‘84 Olympic Arts Festival, ten murals including Baca’s were commissioned along the 110 and 101 freeways. Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” commemorates the 1984 women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. Depicted is a powerful moment of a woman running through and breaking a turquoise stone wall. Inspired by the stone blocks in Jorge González Camarena’s “Liberación” mural in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Baca incorporated turquoise stone elements that symbolize an old patriarchal order. The woman marathon runner is not only breaking a finish line, but she is breaking a symbolic rope that once obstructed her. “There she stood as a 25-foot woman on the freeway. So just that image alone is incredible,” says Baca. “People of color on walls were remarkable achievements because we weren’t on the billboards; we weren’t on TV and advertisements. We were missing on the school boards and in the city council. To create a large-scale image like me was a really big statement to put POC presence in a dominant place, in a public environment. It was a reclamation of our land and our memory.”
Baca working on the mural, 1984
“Hitting the Wall” speaks not only as a commemoration of the marathon, but it is a symbol of women overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve equal rights. The setting of a marathon race is intentional: it’s an homage to the strength of the female body that is necessary not only for a marathon but also necessary for facing a history of oppression, giving life, and caring for life.
White-Wash and Restoration
Since then, “Hitting the Wall” has been affected by repeated vandalism and erasure from public sight. The other murals from the Olympic Arts Festival commission have also experienced damage, and only a few are left standing while many have been damaged or disappeared. “Hitting the Wall” has undergone several repairs to preserve its quality. However, in March 2019, the public artwork was white-washed by Metro and Caltrans contractors. This past summer, LA Metro, CalTrans, and a graffiti abatement contractor reached a historic, amicable settlement under which “Hitting the Wall” was restored at LA Metro’s and Caltrans’ expense.
”This historic settlement shows that where there is a will, there is a way,” said Brooke Oliver, legal counsel for Baca and SPARC and noted arts lawyer. “Art restoration after extensive damage from overpainting and at the expense of public agencies is nearly unheard of in artists’ rights cases. Because Judy Baca’s Hitting the Wall mural is of such widely recognized stature and a Los Angeles art treasure, after long and tough negotiations, Baca, SPARC, and the public agencies found ways to save Hitting the Wall without putting the entire burden of doing so on the artist.”
High pressure water removing white-wash paint, June 2021
But what did it mean for this public monument to be deliberately white-washed in the first place? White-washing this moment in history is a violation of women’s rights; it’s an action that nearly erased an important and radical historical event. Now more than ever, the return of “Hitting the Wall” is necessary given recent attempts to roll back strides in equality. “The mural underscores the significance of women, athletics, and marathon running. I use that metaphor for the marathon running of women’s rights. It’s not achieved; we are still struggling. There have been many rollbacks on equality. I think we’ve seen a lot of rollbacks on feminist ideals, and the attempt to overrule Roe V Wade is just one of them,” says Baca.
Hitting the Wall’s restoration and persistence in the face of literal erasure is a bold act of resistance. In June 2021, SPARC’s Mural Rescue team successfully removed the gray paint and completed the restoration on August 13, 2021. SPARC’s Mural Rescue team for “Hitting the Wall” was led by Executive Director Carlos Rogel and Myisha Arellano along with support from Reba Castaneda, Kiara Machado, Joe Martinez, Lance Borowitz, Adam Boggs, Jose Dominguez Leon, Jennifer Kuberka, Philippe Previl, Lindsay Carron, Kevin Burgos, Leidy Gonzalez Lopez, and Dagoberto Perez. SPARC’s restoration team includes several women of color and emerging artists, thus engaging a new generation in the preservation of historic artwork. Preserving this milestone in women’s history into public memory sustains the foundation of ongoing contemporary social justice efforts within and outside of sports. Additionally, the mural restoration’s timing is impeccable as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes place this summer and social activism is on the rise at the games.
Myisha Arellano removing gray paint with high-pressure water, June 2021.
Restoration team applying solvent to remove gray paint, June 2021.
Legacy and Social Impact
Public Art refreshes cultural memory and catalyzes social change; it’s a medium that is not elite or exclusive, it’s accessible, and it belongs to the people. What makes “Hitting the Wall” special is that it is not only in a space for the public sphere, but it also depicts the Olympics, an event in history that is a space for mass public gathering. For a huge stride in Women’s history to take place in front of a global audience is monumental. What did it mean to include women in the 1984 Olympic marathon? Female presence on a worldwide platform paved the path for inclusivity–diverse stories, perspectives, and experiences can be active and represented in the Olympics. Furthermore, a large audience must see faces and stories similar to their own, it’s important for people who look like themselves also making outstanding achievements at the games.
For Baca to document this historic event in the form of public art is an affirmation to the achievements of historically marginalized stories. Murals serve as a source of pride and a reminder of a history about the people. Because of the accessible nature of public art, murals have become a medium to tell stories and achievements in history from the perspective of the marginalized instead of history told by hegemonic systems. These milestones painted on the walls of the everyday lives of ordinary people refine cultural memory and maintain the fire for social change. “We put things into public view because it was giving it back to the people,“ says Baca.
Baca collaborating with crew for the restoration, June 2021
Today, the Olympic games have continued to be a platform used to raise awareness to social issues. In order for progress to continue, milestones like the 1984 marathon must be preserved. Several athletes in history have used their public attention to make a social demonstration, despite censorship and the risk of suspension. Examples include the Tommie Smith and John Carlos 1968 Black Power Salute, Feyisa Lilesa’s 2016 Ethiopian protest gesture, and countless others. After several attempts from Olympic athletes using their platform to bring attention to social issues, the Olympics is now allowing some forms of activism at the 2020 Tokyo games. Thus far, women athletes have been leading courageous social demonstrations this past summer: hammer thrower Gwen Barry turned away from the US flag to protest racial justice, British Women’s Soccer players took a knee to protest discrimination, and shot-putter Raven Saunders defied the protest ban when she made a gesture to symbolize “the intersection of where all who are oppressed meet.”
Completed mural restoration, August 2021
It is without a doubt that strides like the 1984 women’s marathon have served as a foundation for these discussions at the Olympics today. That event in women’s history brought a plethora of voices necessary for social change. The inclusion paved by the 1984 Olympics is an integral part of the lineage of progress and radical discussions we have today at the current Olympics.
For Judy Baca to document that foundational part of women’s history and intersectional representation is incredible. What’s more, for her monument to this historical and radical event to literally be erased yet emerge again just in time for the Tokyo Olympics is even more outstanding.
Hitting the Wall is a beautiful story of radical resistance and phenomenal endurance. It’s an art piece that sustains a historic milestone in our public memory, a critical milestone that has cultivated discussions and revolutionary changes regarding representation and social justice that are ongoing today.
Written By: Anastasia Yulo, 2021 Getty Marrow Intern | UCLA Student, Environmental Science