On a weekday afternoon in early fall, the cluster of streets that make up downtown Coachella are quiet and peaceful. The buildings are clean and well kept, and the Vietnam Veterans Park offers an expansive lawn for recreation. Individuals walk around doing errands, while groups of older gentlemen gather for chats or games of checkers.
All of this turns out to be an unexpectedly sublime environment for viewing Coachella Walls, a stunning collection of murals by artists who hail from around the world, spread throughout downtown’s 10-block radius. Inside a fenced rest area, passersby can spot Cambodian-born artist Andrew Hem’s I be boy, You be girl, a magical depiction of two youths break dancing in perfect harmony, seemingly floating in the cosmos. Hem witnessed this scene when visiting the hometown of his father. He soon learned that the kids brought the art of break dancing back to that village when they were deported from the United States.
On another wall, the Brazilian artist known as Nunca created La Banda, a dramatically cropped close-up that shows only the hands and instruments of a guitarist and a drummer in action. A local band called Los Tacatacas inspired the image. Bursting with vivid color and bold energy, the mural seems to lift off the wall and dance in the street. The artist plans to paint the rest of his band portrait in other locations around the world, making it into a global jigsaw puzzle.
As all good public art does, these murals speak to the interests and concerns of the local population, which in Coachella is primarily composed of first- and second-generation Hispanic immigrant farmworkers. The murals also enjoy the rare benefit of being placed in an environment where tagging, graffiti, and urban grime — the bane of many big-city murals — are not an issue. It’s remarkable to see these murals looking so fresh and pristine.
Coachella Walls may well turn this sleepy town into a major destination for mural enthusiasts, and that is exactly the intention of its founders. The brainchild of artists Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez, who collaborate as the Date Farmers, Coachella Walls was envisioned as an art-driven community revitalization project. Many of the downtown-area storefronts are empty or boarded up, and the neighborhood could benefit from a dose of tourism. It was also an opportunity for the duo to bring some of their favorite, globally diverse artists to town to showcase their work.
photo courtesy of date farmers
Armando Lerma at work on the grape boycott mural.
Lerma and Ramirez secured funding for the project from the city of Coachella’s public art fund and tapped their friend Medvin Sobio, who had previously involved them in organizing muralists for a similar project in Miami called Wynwood Walls.
Coachella Walls launched with five commissioned murals in April 2014, timed to coincide with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. It is currently being readied for its next phase in April 2016. Oaxacan collective La Piztola has already completed a new mural.
“The project brings much-needed attention to Coachella and the other east-side cities,” Sobio says. “Too much of the focus is on the west-side communities around Palm Springs. The dichotomy between the two is striking.”
Each phase of Coachella Walls will reflect a theme. Next year’s theme will revolve around female labor activists. Last year’s theme was “The Anonymous Farm Worker,” also the title of Arizona artist El Mac’s work that adorns the side of the city of Coachella’s finance and utility building. The Date Farmers contributed the first mural in that phase — an ode to the groundbreaking grape boycott that started in 1965. The mural sits, fittingly, on the side of the Casa del Trabajador, a historic provider of services to farmworkers and a place where Cesar Chavez once spent the night.
Only steps away from this building, the Date Farmers Art Studio unfolds in a large former warehouse the two artists purchased and renovated. After a period of living in Los Angeles and growing their careers, they decided to resettle here in 2012 and focus on nurturing the art scene in their own hometown. They have hosted exhibitions in their studio, as well as special parties during the Coachella music festival.
“You don’t often see artists do something on this scale in their hometown,” Sobio says. “They usually leave.”