DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – It seemed a novel idea: In advance of its recently announced April 2011 show on street art, the Museum of Contemporary Art offered one of its walls to a prominent street artist.

The artist, an Italian who goes by the name Blu, finished the work. On the morning of Dec. 9, the museum painted over it.

The paint was hardly dry on the mural, which covered the entire north-facing wall of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary with depictions of wooden caskets draped in dollar bills, when the museum literally whitewashed the piece.

A MOCA spokeswoman would not comment on the whitewashing, but the piece may have struck a delicate nerve center that sits just steps from the wall. The piece faces the Veterans Administration healthcare building on Temple Street. The dollar bills draped on Blu’s caskets seem to be an overt replacement of the customary American flags that cover the coffins of soldiers killed in wartime.

A representative for the Veterans Administration said that management at the facility was aware of the mural, but did not complain to MOCA. The mural is also just steps from the Go For Broke Monument, a memorial to Japanese Americans who fought in World War II. A spokeswoman for the National Go For Broke Education Center said that some of the veterans found the mural “in bad taste,” but the organization did not complain to MOCA either.

The artist, who did not immediately respond to an email, was on the scene as a crew began to paint over the work, and he was not pleased, said Daniel Lahoda, a street art advocate who curates the L.A. Freewalls Project and was in Little Tokyo to document the whitewashing.

“He was here this morning, taking pictures,” Lahoda said. “He was [angry].”

It came as little surprise to the Los Angeles art world when new MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch, a longtime street art champion, announced in September that the museum would present a major show exploring the movement. His former New York gallery, Deitch Projects, displayed the work of California street art icon Barry McGee and L.A. transplant Shepard Fairey.

The whitewashing of the mural at the Geffen Contemporary came a day before the museum is due to host a media preview for Suprasensorial, a show highlighting Latin American artists working with light and space. MOCA previews generally attract scores of cameras and reporters.

Lahoda, whose LA Freewalls connects artists with building owners who offer their walls for murals, welcomed Deitch’s embrace of street art. But he said the mural snafu is emblematic of a critique that often follows street art when it leaves the public realm and goes up on the walls of mainstream art institutions.

Looking at street art in a museum, or in this case on a museum’s wall, he said, is sort of like “looking at wild animals in the zoo.”

The move may remind Downtowners of the 2006 whitewashing of Kent Twitchell’s “Ed Ruscha Monument.” The destruction of the massive work on the side of a building at 1051 S. Hill St. prompted nearly two years of legal battles that culminated when the artist was awarded $1.1 million.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at

©Los Angeles Downtown News. Reprinting items retrieved from the archives are for personal use only. They may not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission of the Los Angeles Downtown News. If you would like to re-distribute anything from the Los Angeles Downtown News Archives, please call our permissions department at (213) 481-1448.