Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the history of graphic design and social activism in California, with a focus on Los Angeles, published in partnership with KCET Artbound.
LOS ANGELES – When Emilio Carrillo came to the United States from El Salvador 24 years ago, he started making friends who asked him to paint murals on the walls of their small shops. The 63-year-old construction worker and autodidact painter doesn’t live from his art, but it is a gift that he has had since childhood when he makes filigree drawings on blackboards for school lessons.
His best-known work is on the side of an apartment building in Pico-Union. The extensive mural, painted about 12 years ago, shows six panels with complex landscapes of flora and fauna, each representing a different country in America: Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The idea, commissioned by the owner of the building, was to honor the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood, especially since the building is along the route of the Central American Independence Day Parade, which takes place every September 15.
To pinpoint the cultural and natural meanings of each country, Carrillo says that while painting he spoke to pedestrians from Honduras; Guatemalan tenants who lived in the building above the mural; his ex-partner from Nicaragua; and the owner of the building who is from Ecuador. As he painted his homeland El Salvador, Carrillo remembered his childhood in the country, where his eyes feasted on the thick foliage and colorful animals. While painting Mexico, Carrillo drew from his trip to the United States. “I came here by train and I remember Mexico, especially the Nopales,” he said.
For Carillo, painting is a source of peace and tranquility from life’s difficulties. His practice is collaborative and paints elements such as butterflies or iguanas based on suggestions from passers-by. “Sometimes there are elders in wheelchairs who left their country long ago and you can see the joy on their faces when I paint landscapes that remind them of their childhood,” said Carillo. “I feel like I’m helping humanity even for a moment.”
Carillo is one of the many sign painters and wall painters who have contributed to the imagery of Los Angeles. These hand-painted, unique signs and murals not only help businesses advertise themselves, but also create a sense of place and belonging for residents. From markets and barbershops to restaurants and botanicas, they have become iconic signifiers for certain neighborhoods.
In predominantly Latinx districts, signs and murals are often painted in Spanish and have motifs such as the Quetzal bird from Guatemala or La Virgen de Guadalupe from Mexico that people associate with their culture. These works of art are intended to attract and honor the residents of this particular district, be it Mexican food on the facade of a restaurant in Boyle Heights, an ode to the Central American countries on the wall of a house in Pico-Union, or a colorful farm landscape in front of a mercado in East Hollywood.