PICTURED: Mural co-creator Moses Mora cleans graffiti off the Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural in Ventura on Sept. 20, 2020. Photo by MB Hanrahan

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

nshaffer@timespublications.com

The Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural at 2 W. Main Street in Ventura has been restored after being significantly vandalized earlier this month.

On the evening of Friday, Sept. 9, “someone took chalk, marker pens and an Exacto knife and some bad intentions to the mural,” artist MB Hanrahan shared with the Ventura County Reporter in a Sept. 20 email.

The mural, which celebrates the people that were part of the former Tortilla Flats community, was defaced with chalk and pen marks. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that the polytab — a nonwoven fabric often used for outdoor mural installations — had also been slashed in several areas with a sharp blade.

The mural likely would have sustained more damage if not for the efforts of Scott Adams of Ventura. Adams was driving in the area on Sept. 9 when he witnessed the vandalism. He pulled over, called the police and had the individual arrested.

“Is this someone who has a vendetta against the mural?”

The mural on the east-facing wall of Paddy’s Bar and Lounge at the corner of Main Street and Ventura Avenue celebrates the individuals and businesses of the Tortilla Flats community, a multicultural neighborhood once located between Main Street and the ocean that was displaced when the 101 Freeway was extended into Ventura in the 1950s. Created by Moses Mora and MB Hanrahan (who were also responsible for the multi-panel Tortilla Flats murals on the Figueroa Street Underpass), its installation was completed in February 2020.

An informational panel of the Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural was vandalized with chalk and knife blade on Sept. 9, 2020. Photo by MB Hanrahan

Hanrahan said that she was originally told of the vandalism by Jackie Pearce, executive director of the Westside Community Development Corporation. When the artist went to examine the damage, she said that there were chalk and pen marks over the wrists, necks, faces and names of some of the individuals depicted in the mural. On the panel containing the descriptive text, the words “black” and “music” were also circled in chalk. Looking more closely, Hanrahan discovered “significant scoring, as if [the vandal] was trying to scratch out words.” 

In all, five art panels and three sections of text were damaged.

Hanrahan is one of Ventura County’s best known muralists. She said that while she of course has seen graffiti on public art, it’s not common.

“Is it a regular occurrence? No,” Hanrahan stated. “This particular situation, it freaked me out. Is this someone who has a vendetta against the mural?”

She was particularly concerned about the nature and extent of the damage.

“Whether it was random, planned, racist, hateful — it was violent,” she said, adding that, “The vast majority of people seen in the mural are Hispanic. It’s not lost on me that this is Hispanic Heritage Month.” (National Hispanic Heritage Month typically takes place Sept. 15-Oct. 15.)

On Sept. 9, a vandal took markers, chalk and a knife blade to the Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural in Ventura. Many of the figures depicted in the mural had slashes across their wrists and necks. Photo by MB Hanrahan

Speaking about the vandalism, Mora said he “was disappointed. We just had the mural dedication right before the pandemic.”

While he agreed that “it’s very easy to see something like this as a hate crime,” he noted that to some degree, this kind of thing goes hand-in-hand with public art.

“I’m up there in age and I’ve been doing murals for decades,” 71-year-old Mora said. “It’s public art; it’s an easy target . . . What’s different is when someone takes a knife to your art . . . I feel disappointed in the sense that we haven’t educated people about respecting art.”

Citizen action helps protect public art

Both Hanrahan and Mora are grateful that the extent of damage was less significant than it might be, owing to the action of Scott Adams. 

Adams is an organic farmer who has a small avocado orchard near Kellogg Park. He heads up a graffiti task force through Westside Community Development Corporation (he got involved through WCDC’s Changemaker Network). Pre-pandemic, a group of volunteers would clean up graffiti on the Westside every three months. The task force hasn’t been active since shelter-in-place orders, but Adams still goes out to the Westside daily.

“I was going up the Avenue, it was eight or nine o’clock at night, to get tacos,” Adams recalled. Driving past Paddy’s, he noticed someone at the mural. “I originally thought he was an artist. He was barefoot, and he had stuff laid out on a towel.”

“I was watching him,” Adams continued, “I see he’s slashing the throats of the people on the mural with whatever is in his hand. That’s when my heart raced. I called 911; I knew it was something nefarious.”

According to Adams, the individual — a white man — “had a lot of anger in him. It could have been a racist attack.”

A close-up of the knife damage done to a figure depicted on the Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural during a Sept. 9, 2020, vandalism incident. Photo by MB Hanrahan

Adams did not speak with the vandal, but he videotaped him and stayed onsite until the police arrived — within five minutes, with four or five officers in attendance. They told Adams that the man, a homeless person from Thousand Oaks, was known to them.

“This individual was in the system as having mental problems,” he said. 

The man was arrested on a felony vandalism charge. 

Mora was impressed by the fact that someone was caught in the act — most vandalism occurs without a witness — and that the police intervened. “It’s not often that the perpetrators get found. I was surprised that someone was arrested.”

“A citizen didn’t just drive by,” Hanrahan said. “He called the cops and advocated for public art. That was freaking amazing to me.”

Mural has been restored

The Tortilla Flats Legacy Mural has been restored to its former glory. A volunteer cleanup crew removed the chalk and pen marks on Sept. 20, and Hanrahan spent the following week repairing the knife damage. This involved reapplying acrylic gel, polytab and epoxy as needed and repainting the affected areas. Repair costs totaled $2,000.

“From a distance, you can’t really see [the damage],” Hanrahan said. “I’m feeling better now that it’s been fixed.”

Mora expressed some concern that the vandal could be “a repeat offender.” Adams agreed, noting that he saw the same man again “a week or so later” at the mural, and chased him off — although he has not been seen since.

Mora is retired now, but he worked at Bell Arts Factory in a variety of capacities (including executive director, chairman and treasurer of the board) for many years. During that time, he got to know the local homeless population quite well. He considered this when contemplating the Tortilla Flats vandal’s recent act.

“A lot of them are talking to themselves and a lot of them need mental health services,” Mora said. “What’s in the mind of a mentally damaged individual that just doesn’t get it? . . . We can’t treat that person like a burglar or a murderer.”

In the original Sept. 20 email sent to the VCReporter, Hanrahan stated, “We would prefer that he get help, not punishment.”

For now, at least, the vandal’s work has been undone and the community can once again enjoy the mural that was designed to celebrate its history and culture. 

“The entire mural would likely have been damaged if not for citizen action, the police taking action and community public art being perceived as valuable and worth saving,” Hanrahan said.