Portraits of the City

Man One paints the faces of Los Angeles.

los angeles mural by man one
Man One

No matter where I paint a mural, visual art is a universal language that needs no translation,” says Man One, a.k.a. Alejandro Poli Jr. Man One lives to transform public spaces into sacred ones with murals. He’s painted them all over the world, from the 72nd floor of the U.S. Bank Building in downtown Los Angeles to locations in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Mexico and, most recently, at the United States embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, for two weeks in December, where he also taught workshops with local artists.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Graffiti artists call such ubiquity “all city,” a fitting description of Man One’s visual presence around Los Angeles. (A map of Man One pieces in the United States can be found here.) Long before he was embraced as a muralist, Man One painted as a graffiti artist. Art historian and mural expert Isabel Rojas-Williams calls him “one of the pioneers in popularizing West Coast graffiti art both domestically and internationally.”

Man One grew up in Alhambra, next to East Los Angeles, and began painting when he was 12. By the late 1980s, he was an active graffiti artist across L.A. County. While earning his bachelor of fine arts at Loyola Marymount University (where he was also a Division I soccer player), Man One began thinking about how he could make art his career. Inspired by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), the first artist to use aerosol in his radical murals, Man One gradually landed mural opportunities across Los Angeles.

He owned Crewest Gallery from 2002 to 2012, Los Angeles’s first art gallery dedicated exclusively to graffiti and street art, where he nurtured the careers of his peers. Dozens of artists’ first exhibits in the 2000s were at Crewest.

Despite closing Crewest in 2012, Man One continues to organize art shows, including the recent Street Schooled at ArtShare L.A. from December 17 through late January. The intergenerational exhibit paired artists like seminal Chicano muralists Paul Botello, Wayne Healy, and Fabian Debora with the younger up-and-coming artists they mentored, like Obed Silva, Jesse Fregozo, and Jacqueline Valenzuela.

Amid his constant productivity, Man One is especially excited about his nearly completed series of portrait murals at the former Jordan Downs housing project in Watts. Once considered one of California’s most dangerous projects, it has been renamed Cedar Grove and given a controversial $1 billion makeover, including new living facilities and murals painted on fences and in between spaces. The showcase for art was inspired in part by the Estrada Courts housing project in Boyle Heights, which is widely considered one of the birthplaces of the modern Chicano mural movement, with over 90 painted between 1972 to 1978.

Man One’s version is a 21st-century remix spotlighting Jordan Downs/Cedar Grove’s longtime residents. Titled The Faces of Watts, it features 25 to 30 portraits to be painted by this summer, with more to be determined later. “It’s not very often that you get to create a piece of art that’s pivotal in the positive transformation of a neighborhood,” Man One declares.

“I’m really honored to be able to do this legacy project,” he says. “The kids, the women, and even the tough-looking youngsters—they all want to be on the walls!”•

Mike Sonksen, a third-generation Angeleno, is a poet, an essayist, and the author of Letters to My City.
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