A Stroll Through Historic Olvera Street


Originally published in The Quarterly, Spring 2016 issue

GRAPE VINES above the original Wine Street, now known as Olvera Street, a vibrant outdoor Mexican marketplace where pedestrians can shop for authentic goods, eat delicious food and discover the origins of Los Angeles.

In the heart of historic Los Angeles, across from Union Station, lies a charming burst of colors, culture and cuisine. Olvera Street is one of the oldest streets in LA, a shoppers delight and a snapshot into history.

This living museum is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city and home to literally the mother of all local ditches, Zanja Madre. The “mother ditch” was LA’s first water system that gave life to the growing pueblo (town) from 1781-1904. And it ran right through what is now “Olvera Street.”

But to truly appreciate the richness of the area, one must step back in time and understand its origins. My guide, Carl McCraven appreciates that “this place is open and preserved. And with a tour, people can appreciate it as I do.” This free tour through the historic site sets the stage. 

Peace-loving Tongva (also referred to as Gabrielino) natives inhabited Yangna settlement for centuries, perhaps even “thousands of years,” according to some estimates. In 1781, the Tongva welcomed los pobladores, new settlers recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of California. Then, the area was known as Alta California, the northernmost Spanish territory.

QUEEN OF THE ANGELS was a part of the original name given by los pobladores, the new settlers

Los pobladores, the founders of Los Angeles, were made up of 11 families (44 men, women and children) from Native American, African and European descent. They traveled more than 1,000 miles on foot from Sinaloa and Sonora Mexico, incentivized by de Neve to make settlements of their own. They called their beautiful new home “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles” or the town of the Queen of Angels.

The current site of “El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument” commemorates the origins of Los Angeles, of which Olvera Street is a part. Migrants from around the world also begin calling the pueblo their home (Italians in 1823, the French in 1827 and the Chinese in 1850.)

The museums at the monument honor the cultures represented in these early years. Though they may be overlooked by the casual visitor, they are not to be missed. These include Avila Adobe, the oldest house in the city, built in 1818, The Pelanconi House, the oldest brick building, built by Italians in 1855 and the Sepulveda House, built in 1887.

Additional points of interest include the Italian Hall, David Siqueiros’ controversial mural, America Tropical, and the Chinese American Museum (just outside Olvera Street).

In 1877, the street known as Calle de las Vignas or Wine Street was officially changed to Olvera Street in honor of the first judge of Los Angeles County, Agustin Olvera. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s, Olvera street was becoming a slum.

But in 1926 a concerned philanthropist, Christine Sterling, recognized the historic value of the area and was determined to renovate and reinvigorate the pueblo.

Michelle Garcia-Ortiz, a representative of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument says, “Christine Sterling came up with the idea for Olvera Street after she had successfully completed a campaign to restore The Avila Adobe House. She wanted the surrounding area to be a welcoming place that payed tribute to Mexican American culture and traditions.” And with friends like Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Olvera Street was transformed.

Even the Chief of Police donated the labor of prison inmates. In a journal entry in 1929, Sterling wrote, “One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another electrician. Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.”

Sterling, “the mother of Olvera Street” brought together various craftspeople, restauranteurs and business-minded folk to open shops. And on April 20, 1930, Easter Sunday, Olvera Street opened as a Mexican marketplace.

MIKE MARISCAL, owner of Myrosa Enterprises and president of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, is a forth generation shop owner and direct descendant of the original shop keeper.

Many of the merchants today are direct descendants of the original shop owners. Mike Mariscal, fourth-generation owner of “Myrosa Enterprises” is one of them. His shop and others on Olvera Street are proud to showcase local artists among other more traditional goods.

Roving musicians, balladeers and painters add color to the street while inspiring visitors and being inspired by the diversity within. One such artist is the late Leo Politi who created the nearby mural “Blessing of Animals.” He also wrote and illustrated more than 20 children’s books, a Caldecott winner and two honors among them, including “Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street.” Postcards of his illustrations are sold at Myrosa and neighboring venues.

BLESSING OF ANIMALS, a Leo Politi mural, graces a side of his beloved Olvera Street

Mariscal, also President of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, says, “I’m here not only to make a living, but to teach the public about the history, culture and traditions of Olvera Street.”

One of the privileges of the association is to host a variety of traditional events, all free. Some of the events include (as described by material from El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation):

Lantern Festival Chinese American Museum (March 5)

Activities include: workshops, crafts, artisans, entertainment and cultural exhibits.

Blessing of the Animals (Saturday, March 26, 12-5 PM) “This centuries-old tradition of blessing the animals, for all the benefits they provide mankind, is celebrated with a procession on Olvera Street led by the Archbishop of Los Angeles. All pets welcome.”

Olvera Street 86th Anniversary Celebration (Saturday, April 23) A smaller event with free refreshments and entertainment.

Cinco de Mayo (Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1, 11 AM – 9 PM and May 5)

Fiesta de las Flores (June)

Dia de los Muertos (October/November)

Virgen de Guadalupe (December)

Las Posadas (December)

Los Tres Reyes or Epiphany of the Three Kings (January)

Fiesta de la Candelaria (February)

Mardi Gras Children’s Workshop (February)

For a full schedule of events in and around Olvera Street or for free docent tours, call (213) 628-1274. Pick up a scavenger hunt sheet for children at the visitors’ center. Adults can also learn from this colorful brochure encouraging the curious to, “look, find, listen, read and ask.” And in doing so, we are all the richer.

THE ORIGINAL CANDLE SHOP from the opening of Olvera Street in 1930 can still be visited today.

“Hollywood” Sign of the Times

Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.
Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

The “Hollywood” Sign inspires dreamers, welcomes starry-eyed visitors, is a familiar friend to locals and has a life of its own with stardom and tragedy. For nearly a century, the Southern California icon represented in movies, TV shows, advertisements, books, music and more, has stood tall on Mount Lee, which is located in Griffith Park.

“It’s more than just nine white letters spelling out a city’s name,” says Betsy Isroelit, media director for the Hollywood Sign Trust. “It’s one of the world’s most evocative symbols – a universal metaphor for ambition, success, glamour… for this dazzling place, industry and dream we call H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D. It’s wonderful to know that the Sign is an inspiration to people from all walks of life, as well as to generations of filmmakers.”

Photo Courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and HollywoodPhotographs.com. All Rights Reserved.

Like the city it watches over, the dramatic Sign was a fitting addition to a booming industry of silver screen magic and shining stars above and below. At its birth in 1923, the Sign read “HOLLYWOODLAND,” after a local real estate development, owned by then Los Angeles Times Publisher, Harry Chandler. It was used primarily to draw people to the glamorous west and sell homes.

The $21,000 Sign, lit up with 4000 light bulbs blinked in order: “HOLLY”, “WOOD”, “LAND”, and a 35-foot diameter “.” punctuated the end. Each letter stood about 43 feet high and 30 feet wide. As described by Isroelit, “The original Sign was constructed of wooden telephone poles and squares of tin. Letters made of hundreds of small squares of metal proved to be difficult to maintain, as the squares would easily pop off in a wind or rainstorm.”

The advertising tool was meant to stand for only 18 months, but outlasted the real estate company it was originally built to promote that eventually went out of business. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, as the country suffered, Americans looked to the movies for escape. But pain was also found there.

The rise and fall of one movie star proved too much for 24-year-old Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by plunging to her death off the top of the “H” in 1932.

Some say “The Hollywood Sign Girl” still haunts the mountain today. But perhaps she doesn’t have to wait much longer for her featured roll. Entwistle’s tragic story will finally be told on the big screen as a film is currently in the works.

By the end of the 1930s, the Don Lee Network, then owned by his son, bought the land behind the Sign and built a television broadcast studio and what was the highest elevation transmission tower in the world at the time. The site of the network and working radio towers are still seen by the Sign on Mount Lee, the namesake of the man who helped promote television broadcasting.

Aging and in need of care, the Hollywoodland Sign became the property of the city in 1944. In 1949, after World War II, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, together with the City of Los Angeles, decided to give the Sign a badly needed facelift. And like many of the movie stars it inspired, the Sign was also given a name change, dropping the “LAND” and simply becoming “HOLLYWOOD” to help promote the city and growing movie industry.

Unfortunately, in the 1960s, after the golden age of cinema, large movie studios began to move out of Hollywood and into neighboring cities with more space. The Hollywood Sign continued deteriorating, like the city beneath.

In 1973, the Sign was designated an official Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument (#111). In 1976, prankster Daniel Finegood changed the sign to read “Hollyweed,” as a class project in college and in support of looser marijuana laws; he received an “A.” Finegood changed the sign to “Holywood” in 1987 during the Easter season and a visit from Pope John Paul II.

By the 1970s, the Hollywood Sign was infested by termites and a crumbling mess. In order to restore the iconic landmark, Hugh Hefner held a fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion in 1978. Each of the original letters were “auctioned” off and 9 well-known individuals spent about $23,000 each to sponsor a letter.

Today, the Hollywood Sign Trust non-profit “is responsible for physically maintaining, repairing and securing the Hollywood Sign; educating the world about its historical and cultural importance; and securing the funds necessary to accomplish these projects,” says Isroelit. “Since its charter in 1992 the Hollywood Sign Trust has led a range of projects to preserve and protect the Sign, including two major refurbishments and the installation of a state-of-the-art security and surveillance system.” There’s even a police officer stationed nearby. According to Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, “The Hollywood Sign received two tons of makeup in time to celebrate her 90th birthday [in 2013], restoring an American icon.”

So grab your hiking boots, some water, and sunscreen. You don’t have to go far to see the most famous Sign in the world. One great way to see it is via the Mt. Hollywood Trail at the Charlie Turner Trailhead, on the north end of the Griffith Park Observatory parking lot, a 3.8 mile round-trip hike. There is also a Hollywood Sign shuttle from the observatory and other longer trails that lead right behind the Sign for hikers to enjoy an added bonus: a spectacular view of Hollywood, a unique and thriving city once again.

Go to Hollywoodsign.org for more information and details about visiting the historic monument.

Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Fall 2015

Authentic Asian Cuisine: A Unique Food Culture in the 626

Originally published in The Quarterly, Summer 2015 issue

By Ann Suk Wang

Venture east, not Far East, but much closer for some Asian palate pleasers. East of Los Angeles and into the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) is where a vast variety of authentic Chinese food outmatches any outside Asia. These days, even New York, San Francisco, and Chinatowns around the country cannot compare to the offerings in the “626” (a term adopted by Generation Xers and Millennials, referring to their beloved hip area code.)

Truffle Pork XiaoLong Bao from Din Tai Fung. Photo courtesy of dintaifungusa.com
Truffle Pork XiaoLongBao from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

In our cultural stew that is Southern California, the SGV is a welcome haven and home to many new immigrants, primarily from Asia. And we all benefit from the cultural exchange, especially when it comes to the amazing food options around Main Street and Valley Boulevard.

According to Clarissa Wei, columnist for Have You Eaten? at kcet.org,

“We have some of the most apt and undiluted representations of Asian cuisine here.” From Yelp reviews to food bloggers and top food critics, people agree that the SGV is turning the commonly thought of “Chinese food” on its head and has been for the last 30 years. The poor man’s chow mein is old school. Now, specialties like “water boiled fish” from Sichuan are perfected nearby and take the spotlight.

Even the entertainment industry speaks to the unique food culture in the 626. The Fung Brothers ignited excitement around businesses in the SGV while giving people a taste of good eats on their catchy YouTube music video that went viral in 2012 and remains unmatched. Search “Fung Bros 626” for the original video and bounce along.

“We didn’t create the food wave, the Asian food movement; but we helped brand it,” says David Fung in a phone interview from South Carolina where the brothers are filming a show for the FYI network. They helped make it cool for the younger generation to drink boba milk tea and have pride in their neighborhood.

Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit dintaifungusa.com
Shanghai Rice Cakes from Din Tai Fung. Photo credit: dintaifungusa.com

But taking a step back, the Asian food boom in the area began in the 70s. The attraction for Asian immigrants to come to the SGV can be traced back to a single realtor, Fredrick Hsieh. “He wanted to make Monterey Park the new Taipei,” says Tony Chen, freelance food writer at Eater.com and SinoSoul.com. Wei adds in her article in firstwefeast.com, “He began to advertise homes in the San Gabriel Valley in Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers. In the 1980s, Monterey Park was heralded as the Chinese Beverly Hills. Today, that title belongs to Arcadia.”

The affluent, who were drawn to the SGV, brought their appetite for authentic quality food with them. Today, more wealthy mainland Chinese people are attracted to the area, bringing with them even more tasteful delights, pushing the boundary of culinary excellence even further east, past the 605 Freeway.

Sichuan food is an example of even more variety in Chinese food now available in the area. “Sichuan food has blown up in China and now here,” says Chen. For some of the best and spiciest dishes, try one of Chen’s and Wei’s favorites: Szechuan Impression in Alhambra. Chen raves, “They’re elevating the game. They believe in restauranteering.”

Some of Fung’s favorites include (and I must agree here): Savoy for their juicy Hainan Chicken and Vietnam House for your pho fix (pho – pronounced “fuh” – is a noodle soup with fresh herbs, vegetables and meat.) Both are modest restaurants that serve delicious food at a very reasonable price. Expect a wait, especially at Savoy on weekends and lunch and dinner hours.

For the best variety in one location, visit the hugely popular “626 Night Market” at Santa Anita Park, in Arcadia. There you can try many types of food like Korean BBQ, fried squid on a stick and egg custard desserts. End the night by sharing a packed bowl of Asian fruit over shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk while enjoying arts, entertainment and shopping that doesn’t break the bank.

Modeled after the famed Night Markets of Taiwan where patrons push through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, vying for the freshest foods and the most popular goods, the Arcadia version is much tamer in comparison, but still scented with stinky tofu and lots of fun. The next of these periodic events will be July 3-5. Visit http://www.626nightmarket.com for details.

Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit newportseafood.com
Lobster from New Port Seafood. Photo credit: newportseafood.com

Whatever your taste, you can certainly enjoy the combination of exotic authentic ingredients only 10-15 minutes away. Even better, you’re sure to find new favorites there.

** Some of my favorite Pan-Asian fare in the 626:

– Din Tai Fung (Arcadia) for hand-made Taiwanese xiaolongbao or juicy pork dumplings. Also try the Shanghai rice cake, cucumber salad, fried rice, and 8-treasure sticky rice for dessert.

– Golden Deli (San Gabriel, Temple City) for Vietnamese pho noodles, spring rolls and egg rolls.

– Lunasia (Alhambra, Pasadena) or King Hua (Alhambra) for dim sum, a sampling of Chinese dishes.

– Newport Seafood (San Gabriel and other locations) for their special lobster.

– Phoenix Food Boutique (South Pasadena, Arcadia) for any meal item and dessert.

– Noodle World (San Marino, Alhambra, Pasadena, Monterey Park) for pan-Asian noodles.

– Huge Tree Pastry (Monterey Park) for authentic Taiwanese breakfasts and classic dishes.

– Why Thirsty (San Gabriel) for Taiwanese pork chops and fresh tea.

– Fluff Ice (Monterey Park) for a unique take on shaved ice.

– Paris Baguette (Arcadia) and 85 Degrees (Pasadena) for French and Asian-inspired desserts and coffee.

– Half and Half Tea (Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Monterey Park and other locations) for honey boba (tapioca pearls) and ice milk drinks. I ask for everything “½ sweet” for less sugar.

Dangerous, Common And Treatable

An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org
An ad from the San Francisco Hep B Free Campaign. Source: SFHepBFree.org

Originally published in The Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2015 issue

A deadly disease lurks in the blood of nearly 1 in 50 people in Los Angeles. The silent killer is the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). And a simple blood test for those who are more prone can easily be the first step in eliminating the devastating effects.

Though some may feel shame in being a potential carrier, this misconception carries a greater shame in not being tested and facing death. The truth is that Hepatitis B (Hep B) is a sickness like any other, passed between average people. But unlike other illnesses, the virus often progresses without any notice to its victim. 85% of carriers have no symptoms. Undetected, HBV quietly replicates, eventually targeting the liver. “The main cause of death from Hepatitis B is liver failure and the development of liver cancer,” says Dr. Myron Tong, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Asian Liver Center and Clinical Hepatology at UCLA and Chief of the Liver Center at Huntington Medical Research Institutes (HMRI) in Pasadena.

This insidious attack can continue for decades until the damage is so great that the individual begins to experience severe fatigue, abdominal pain, or jaundice (deep yellowing of the skin or eyes). These are only a sample of symptoms caused by a distressed liver. “By this time, you’re pretty sick,” says Tong. Those affected “don’t feel sick so they don’t feel an urgency to be screened. [With advances in testing and medication,] we don’t need to see people dying of Hep B anymore,” says Mimi Chang, Senior Nurse Practitioner, Asian Pacific Liver Center in LA.

Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com
Looking in the future: This could be you. By the time Hep B individual is jaundiced, the liver is already seriously damaged. Source: WebMD.com

Because the virus is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids), one cannot get Hep B through casual contact (hand shakes, sneezing or sharing utensils). However, HBV is 50-100% more contagious than HIV. 50% of HBV is vertically transmitted from mother to child during the birthing process. Intravenous drug users, men who have sex with other men, and those with multiple sex partners are also at risk.

Immigrants (even second and third generation) from and those traveling to areas around the world where there are high rates of HBV carriers are also at greater risk. Some high-risk regions include, but are not limited to, East Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. 75% of carriers around the world are Asian, according to Tong. So in LA where Asians make up nearly 15% of the population, the number of people who don’ t know they have Hep B is an issue.

Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org
Endemic areas around the world. Source: HepBFreeHawaii.org

One of the saddest cases seen by Susan Lewis, RN and Clinical Hepatology Coordinator at USC, was in an educated family man of 28, raised in the US, who didn’t know he had Hep B but came to the hospital when symptoms finally appeared. He died of liver complications before his 30th birthday. But this stark outcome can easily be avoided.

“Chronic hepatitis B is a treatable infection. Screening of at-risk persons, early detection and treatment, when indicated, can lessen the risks of illness, liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and death from liver disease,” says Dr. John Donovan, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Gastrointestinal and Liver Diseases, Keck School of Medicine at USC. With education and careful attention to Hep B, Tong believes this health concern can even be eradicated in the next few decades.

Since 1991, all children born in the US routinely receive the Hep B vaccination (in existence since the early 1980s), effectively protecting 95% of those inoculated. But for those who did not receive the vaccine, it is still a necessity, so long as the virus is not in their system (only found by a blood test) and they are born to a family from outside the US where Hep B is endemic. For instance, a person born in the US in the 70s to a parent who immigrated from southeast Asia should be tested because even though the parent did not show outward signs of Hep B, they could have passed down the virus to their children. The vaccine is useless if an individual was already exposed to HBV and is an asymptomatic carrier. For these people, a blood test is necessary to be screened for the virus.

A doctor can then determine if a person needs the vaccine based on family history, or if found positive, the type of treatment needed (usually one pill each day until the HBV is under control.) The sooner it’s caught, the less damage to the liver and the higher the chance of survival. All pregnant women in the US are tested for Hep B. If they are found positive, the baby has a chance at a Hep B-free life if treated at the time of delivery.

If anyone has a family history of liver cancer or falls in the categories above, screening is necessary. Since physicians may not exactly know the people groups who need testing, it is up to the public to become aware and ask for the test. And money should not be an issue. For those who need it, there are free clinics where testing can be done and if necessary, funding for treatment as well. Visit AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org for more on testing in LA, regardless of race. Having a discussion about family origins and medical history can begin the awareness toward testing for a potentially hazardous illness that is completely treatable if found well before symptoms arise.

Join others on May 19, National Hepatitis Testing Day and be an advocate for a “Hep B Free LA” (a volunteer organization to help educate and promote screenings).

To read more about Hep B, go to http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/B/bFAQ.htm or http://www.AsianPacificLiverCenter.Org

A special thank you to Dr. Tong for his expertise in Hep B and extensive help in research for this article.

Olympic Freeway Murals Come Alive Again

Originally published in Fall 2014 Quarterly Magazine

John Wehrle's "Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo" - 101 Freeway at Spring St.
John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” – 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Larger-than-life faces, a child frozen in a handstand, flying mythical columns, and colorful cartoon cars stream by on concrete walls as commuters and visitors from around the world speed or crawl by restored murals.

This is Los Angeles, “mural capital of the world,” and home to the 10 Olympic Freeway Murals from 1984.

Angelinos are fortunate to live and work in a metropolis surrounded by public art created by esteemed muralists. But it is easy to take the beauty of the artwork for granted as drivers sit behind the wheel.

Yet these murals beckon and bend to the rushing nature of traffic. They were created to be experienced in motion – an inspiring backdrop during a hectic day.

According to Isabel Rojas-Williams, Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA), “Although we were all excited to host the Olympics in Los Angeles thirty years ago, in my memory the excitement occurred as I opened the Olympic Arts Festival calendar and saw the opportunities to enjoy world-class art along with world-class sports!”

Unfortunately, mural art is more susceptible to not only highway expansion and the elements, but also taggers who illegally vie for the public’s attention with their own message, placed directly on top of the commissioned works. Because of this, Caltrans painted over the walls. And supporters of the original art have called for restoration.

On August 24 of this year, MCLA held a 30th anniversary celebration fundraiser to help the effort.

The original 10 muralists were honored at the historic Pico House: Glenna Avila, Judith F. Baca, Alonzo Davis, Willie Herrón III, Frank Romero, Terry Schoonhoven, Roderick Sykes, Kent Twitchell, John Wehrle, and Richard Wyatt.

According to Wehrle, “It was wonderful to see people … who went through the same fairly harrowing experience” of making art on the shoulders of some of the busiest freeways in the world (the 101 and 110.)

It was also an honor, Wehrle said, to be counted among the reputable muralists chosen “to represent a vision of LA and the chance to work with other visionary artists of the highest caliber.”

Wehrle’s 24’ x 207’, Keim silicate paint Olympic mural, Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo is an homage to the ancient Greek games and man’s reach into space as a Babel-like tower becomes the rings of Jupiter.

Rojas-Williams said, “As an art historian and scholar of murals, I’m inspired by the history conveyed by the murals in our city. The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals were painted by some of LA’s most iconic muralists.”

The painstaking restoration is well worth the effort. Avila’s L.A. Freeway Kids took six months for preliminary drawings and another six months to prepare and paint acrylic onto the wall. The mural stands 20 feet high and 225 feet long, and some eight additional artists were hired to help complete the painting.

The mural depicted real children in Avila’s life, playing and running while wearing t-shirts of iconic, kid-friendly places around town: the Los Angeles Zoo, the former Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, Disneyland, and UCLA.

At the forefront of the restorations is Herrón III, artist of the Olympic mural Struggles of the World. Lauded by both Avila and Wehrle, Avila stated of him, “He’s my hero.” And though Herrón III has helped to restore multiple Olympic Freeway Murals, he has yet to work on his own.

Of the 10 original murals, five murals have been restored, one is in the process, two are candidates to be restored in the future, and two have been destroyed in a freeway expansion project.

Rojas-Williams adds, “Murals are important because they convey the voice of the masses, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. Murals serve as an education tool; they empower. They are like open-air books, which educate communities about their history … The 1984 Olympic Freeway Murals brought tremendous pride to Los Angeles.”

The 10 Olympic Freeway Murals:

Glenna Avila’s “L.A. Freeway Kids,” — 101 Freeway near Los Angeles St.

Judith Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” — 110 Freeway at 4th St.

Frank Romero’s “Going to the Olympics” — 101 Freeway between Alameda and San Pedro

Kent Twitchell’s “ Lita Albuquerque Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass
 and “Jim Morphesis Monument” — 101 Freeway, Temple St. underpass

John Wehrle’s “Galileo, Jupiter, Apollo” — 101 Freeway at Spring St.

Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84” — 110 Freeway, 3rd St. onramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Willie Herrón III’s “Struggles of the World” — 101 Freeway at Alameda St. (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Terry Schoonhoven’s “Cityscape” — 110 Freeway, 6th St. off-ramp (currently painted over and waiting to be restored)

Roderick Sykes’ “Unity” — 110 Freeway, Figueroa St. exit (destroyed)

Richard Wyatt’s, “James and Spectators” –110 Freeway at Adams Blvd. and Flower St. (destroyed)

To find local murals and learn more about MCLA, go to muralconservancy.org

The Magnificent and Mysterious Monarch Migration

Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang
Monarch butterfly prepares for flight. Photo by ASWang

The moment I laid eyes on a chunky yellow, black and white-striped monarch caterpillar (larva), I was hooked. It is colorful, peaceful and eats a lot. It’s mesmerizing to observe.

But all this munching is in preparation for something profound, a phenomenon known as the monarch butterfly migration, a fierce journey of up to 3,000 miles in about 2 months from this majestic pollinator that faces multiple perils.

After 12 days or so of emerging from its egg and 5 instars later (shedding old skin and emerging into a larger caterpillar each time), it pupates, turning into a lovely light green jewel of a chrysalis speckled with a shimmering gold crown and a matching golden arc pattern beneath, like a priceless pendant worthy of royalty.

Finally, after being motionless for 10-14 days, the chrysalis turns black, then translucent and the great transformation that took place inside is revealed.

A glorious orange and black butterfly emerges, about 4 inches wide. It takes within 10 minutes to 2 hours to unravel its wings, pumping fluid into and flapping them while they dry and prepare for flight.

But even more than being beautiful and graceful, the delicate monarch butterfly is relentless in its keen sense of travel and highly adaptable under pressure.

“They are incredibly robust in their survival strategies… They’re pretty hardy! To fly as far as they do, they have to be!” says Gail Morris, conservation specialist in Arizona.

Among all insects, it stands alone in its determination to survive by an ability deeply rooted in its DNA to migrate to overwintering sites in the oyamel forests of Mexico, the tip of Florida and the coast of California.

But this unique migration is in danger of extinction. Generally speaking, there are two populations of monarchs within the same species, one to the east and one to the west of the Rocky Mountains. And each has its own migration pattern.

The traditional thinking has been that these two populations are completely separate. But recent studies from the Southwest Monarch Study and partners who tagged monarchs in the West, found that some made their way further south, overwintering in Mexico with the predominant eastern population of fall migrators.

According to Dr. Robert Pyle, founder of the Xerces Society and author of Chasing Monarchs, “The Continental Divide is not the absolute dividing line between Mexican and Californian migrants, as has always been said. Basically, the westernmost (coastal, S Oregon, Northwest) monarchs migrate to the California coast, while some of the inland ones migrate to Mexico. We have no idea how many or what determines the destination.”

The monarch migration in the East is better understood and documented than the western migration pattern that is still being discovered.

The monarchs in the East begin their spring migration to the North in the oyamel forest, when the sun warms their bodies and conditions are suitable for travel. It takes about a month to land in the southern parts of the United States, east of the Rockies. The females lay nearly 400 eggs on multiple milkweed plants to ensure the survival of at least 3 into adulthood! The parent monarch, the first generation, then dies.

The spring migration is brutal. The bright colors on the larva and the orange on the butterfly is a warning that they are poisonous, but this does not deter some predators. And not only do the monarchs face wind conditions that often flow against the direction they’re headed, but also the cost of reproduction is a toll on their longevity.

The second generation takes another 4-6 weeks to fly further north, from Texas to North Carolina and even parts of Virginia. They lay their eggs and die. The 3rd and sometimes even a 4th generation continues the cycle and the journey north, finishing the spring migration in the southeastern parts of Canada and northern portions of the United States.

Then the fall migrators emerge. They are in a state of diapause, not mating and so are able to make the dangerous 2-month journey south to Mexico mostly and some to Florida. On this 1,500-3,000 mile trip, depending on where they began, the monarchs are faced with death daily from predators, disease, extreme weather conditions like storms, geographic challenges like vast stretches of water where staying in flight is critical, and a lack of milkweed to sustain their energy.

When the monarchs finally make it to Mexico they overwinter in the trees of the oyamel forest, clustering together to keep warm. It’s a joyous and wondrous time in the village nearby when millions of monarchs descend and the locals believe their ancestors have returned in late October around “Dia de los Muertos,” or the Day of the Dead.

The Monarchs remain there until about March, when this first generation begins the spring migration north and east to mate, lay eggs and die after an exhausting 8-9 months of life, arguably the longest of any butterfly. And the cycle begins again.

The western population appears to have a similar pattern of generational travel, having a fall migration from Washington, Oregon and the southwestern sections of Canada to the coast of California (some even venturing to Arizona and even the oyamel forest of Mexico.)

But travel routes during the spring migration north and the fall migration south to various overwintering sites are not so defined. And both the migration and the overwintering sites are in danger.

According to Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director at the Xerces Society, “There’s an art to preserving overwintering sites. Microclimate change can occur when just some of the trees at the site are cut – affecting humidity, shade, sun and protection from wind.”

Though disease and other natural causes threaten the survival of the monarchs, perhaps the most severe threat is from humans.

In the East, the growing culture of genetically modified crops allow for the mass dumping of harsh herbicides, destroying native milkweed plants, the only breeding and feeding grounds for monarchs.

In Mexico, the monarchs’ overwintering habitats are threatened by deforestation of the oyamel forest.

In the West, our drought problem and urban sprawl destroys the milkweed, hence eliminating the monarch’s only food source.

So it’s no surprise that the monarch population has plummeted. According to the Xerces Society, the eastern population has dropped nearly 90% compared to the highest monarch population estimated in 1996-1997, hitting an all-time low this year.

The western population has seen about a 50% decline (taking into consideration a 17-year average) since 1997 when 1.2 million monarchs were counted. The last count in November 2013 recorded around 200,000.

Though the numbers look bleak, there is certainly a surge of interest in preserving this natural work of art and vital piece of our ecology. And protecting the monarchs’ migration is to protect the monarch itself.

“The more you learn about monarchs the more fascinating they become… Monarch butterflies are also ideal for involving citizen scientists and for conducting research with students. This is especially true in the west where we are still developing a culture of effective citizen science.” says Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, director and research advisor for monarch alert.

So to become more educated and help the monarch population recover, try some of the unique activities below.

Visit an overwintering site October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego, the only place to see overwintering monarch in the United States. According to Dr. Villablanca, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

Become a citizen scientist during the Thanksgiving count and help field researchers determine the total number of monarch (October-January). xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/western-monarch-thanksgiving-count/

Learn how to get involved in tagging monarchs and furthering the study of migration patterns. monarchalert.calpoly.edu

Visit a vivarium (a house of butterflies) Go to butterflyfarms.org for year-round visits. Or enjoy the butterfly pavilion at the Natural History Museum (April-August)

For a fun family activity in your own yard, create a milkweed garden and become a feeding and breeding waystation for spring migrators headed north. xerces.org/milkweed-seed-finder/, monarchwatch.org and landmnursery.com

Visit my blog for more information on monarchs and to read about my experience raising and releasing monarchs in our home in the San Gabriel Valley. annsukwang.com

A special thanks to those who shared their passion for and wisdom about monarchs: Angie Babbit, Pat Flanagan, David James, Sarina Jepsen, Gail Morris, Dr. Robert Pyle and Dr. Francis Villablanca.

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of The Quarterly magazine.

By Ann Suk Wang

Raising Monarchs

Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs
Step 1: A monarch feeds on milkweed and lays her eggs

This past spring I witnessed the beauty and mystery of monarch butterflies in my garden. At first, I was skeptical any would flutter by. How would they find my two small milkweed plants?

When they did find it, I was concerned about my lack of ability and time to raise them. Now that I’ve come out the other end, I can say for certain that with a little guidance and effort, anyone can do this. And it’s worth the effort!

As autumn approaches, the western monarch butterflies migrate south, from parts of Northwestern US to various forests along the coast in California, where they overwinter, bundling together to stay warm for survival.

This is not the season for raising monarchs, but rather, it’s a time for preparing your milkweed for the spring mating season and migration back north. You may also choose to buy more mature milkweed plants in early spring.

The western migration pattern for the monarchs differ from the more well-documented eastern migration from Canada and northern United States to the oyamel forest in Mexico. Though the butterfly species are the same, the ones on the West Coast overwinter in different areas than their eastern counterparts.

The overwintering sites are at their peak from about October-February. There are hundreds along the California coast, from Mendocino County to San Diego. According to Dr. Francis Villablanca, Professor of Biological Sciences at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Director and research advisor for Monarch Alert, “Two of the most spectacular sites are Elwood Main in Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach State Park.” Another popular site is around the Pacific Grove Museum. For more information, visit: xerces.org/where-to-see-monarchs-in-california/

But if you would like to experience monarchs in your own home, begin by growing milkweed in your garden. By spring they should be full and at least 1.5 feet tall (or purchase two or more 5-gallon container plants). This way, the monarch larvae have plenty to eat. Native varieties are best. But an easier plant to maintain is the tropical milkweed. It’s a beautiful water-wise plant, too — though poisonous to ingest, like most milkweed. Just make sure to cut it down during the off season (starting in late July and August) to help minimize passing on disease to future monarchs and allowing for a more natural migration pattern.

Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)
Step 2: A very hungry monarch caterpillar (larva)

When spring comes, the overwintering monarchs will be ready to mate and head north. Their migration is truly a unique phenomenon that is still a mystery to many scientist. It will take at least 3 generations of monarchs and about 4 months to make it all the way up. And it is during this time when the monarch-raising fun begins!

1) In late spring especially, stay vigilant every day (even just 15 minutes in the afternoon), visiting your milkweed plant, killing aphids with a swab on a stick dipped in alcohol, and watching for drifting monarchs. Chances are, these monarchs will land on your milkweed and leave eggs behind. If you’re patient and watch closely, you may even see the monarch actually lay the egg. When I first encountered this, I was moved by the life that was being formed before my very eyes! When you see a white ellipsoid dot on a green stem, you’ve got an egg.

2) 3-4 days later, a tiny caterpillar (larva) will emerge. Keep searching for them daily under leaves and near flowers. When you find one, cut off a small area of the plant, where the larva is hanging on for dear life and bring it in. Be warned… I wanted the larva to live naturally in the garden; but for me, that meant 100% of them being eaten by predators! I was so sad because I felt like the worst monarch mommy. It was time to bring in new hatchlings. And if your plant is healthy, 100% of your larva could successfully emerge as butterflies!

(Note: You may not have time to take care of caterpillars; don’t panic! Just having the milkweed to feed passing monarchs is good! And if you have eggs, you can try to leave them in the garden. You may not have especially dangerous caterpillar snatchers like I did! But if you bring them in…)

mesh dome
mesh dome

3) I put the cut plant (like a straw) into a water-filled plastic cup with a lid, like the ones you get at coffee shop. This helps keeps the plant fresh.

4) I covered the cup/plant/larva with a mesh picnic dome. Whenever the plant looked munched down to nubs, I replaced the plant and gently allowed the caterpillar to crawl onto the new plant. Note: the larva goes through about 5 instars, shedding it’s skin and emerging bigger each time.

In the last few days the larva eat so much, you need to clean their area (to reduce disease) and replace the demolished plant nearly every 18-24 hours. This took the most time in the monarch raising process. Note: Cleaning requires removing the frass (larva excrement) and wiping the flat surface with a natural disinfectant like an equal parts vinegar and water mixture.

5) After the larva can eat and grow no more, they inch their way to the top of your dome and hang upside down in a “J” shape. Try not to disturb the larva from here on! After about a day or two, they will do a circular dance while hanging upside-down. Within minutes a chrysalis will form around the larva. If you happen to catch this process, you will be amazed by the instant transformation. IMG_1173

6) For the next 10 days or so, a dramatic and amazing transformation is taking place inside the chrysalis. (I even felt like my monarchs were teaching me life lessons…  Like sometimes I need to slow down in order to experience deep change… but that’s another article.)

7) When the butterfly is ready to emerge, the chrysalis turns black and then translucent. The shell cracks open and moist wings unravel while fluid is gradually pumped into them,expanding as they dry. Within 10 minutes to a couple hours, the monarch is ready to take flight. You may want to admire the beautiful creature for a day or so; but whatever you do, release it (preferably in the morning or the cool of the day, not at night).

Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis
Step 3: jewel-like monarch chrysalis

8) Often they land on your hand or clothing, as if to say “thank you”  before their final goodbye. And when they leave, you ‘ll feel proud knowing you’ve saved a life and helped the great monarch migration, a natural phenomenon that is still being studied and understood. (Stay tuned for my next post about the monarch migration as it appears in The Quarterly magazine, Fall issue.)

Please share your monarch adventures or misadventures here. I will do my best to answer your questions; but honestly, I am barely scratching the surface on raising monarchs. For a more detailed look into caring for monarchs, try visiting sites like http://monarchbutterflygarden.net and borrowing related books from your local library.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re ready to raise monarchs, consider the benefits (invite a lovely display of nature into your home, plant a water-wise garden with milkweed, become a feeding and breeding way station for migrating monarchs, produce much needed pollinators, help save the monarch migration and the monarch itself…) These far outweigh the costs.

Note: Photos are by yours truly. I hope you enjoy them!

Rose Parade Self-Builts Add Sense of Community to World Event

The 124th Tournament of Roses Parade
2013 Fantasy Trophy winner – Burbank’s “Deep Sea Adventures”

Originally printed in The Quarterly magazine, Winter 2013

As numb fingers and eyes droop in weariness, a lively spirit keep volunteers going through the night and into the following year… year after year as another self-built float for the Rose Parade receives its finishing touches. The volunteers are the key ingredient in the self-built floats.

“Exhausted and exhilarated, it’s [a] sweet taste of accomplishment and pride,” says Greg Lehr, Director of the Rose Float Program at Cal Poly and involved with float building since 1988. Civic-minded helpers work year-round with members of the same community, all for one special day: January 1.

Since the inception of The Pasadena Tournament of Roses and their first parade in 1890, local flora have adorned floats, carriages, vehicles, animals and people going down Colorado Boulevard. At the heart was a desire to showcase Southern California’s idyllic Mediterranean climate; and through tireless community members, the world continues to get a taste.

This small-town tradition continues in the 6 self-built floats: Burbank, Cal Poly Universities, Downey, La Cañada Flintridge, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena.

Among the roughly 45 floats in each of the recent parades, the “self-builts” are dubbed as such because the entire project is driven by volunteers and donations. The price tag of a professionally-built float could be roughly $300,000 on up, but most of the self-builts stay in the $50,000-$100,000 price range.

No one is paid to come up with the concept of the float. Usually there is a contest to pick the winning design. A handful of energetic volunteers fundraise all year long to cover the cost of materials. Community members donate their skills to help shape and weld the pencil steel that creates the skeleton. And hundreds of decorators for each float, mostly from “deco week” (the day after Christmas until the morning of Jan. 1) labor free of charge at all hours.

The know-how to create a traveling and animated work of floral art is passed down from one committed volunteer to the next, through trial and error and the sharing of knowledge.

“Even though we compete against each other, it’s a friendly competition between the self-builts. We all help each other. If someone is ahead of schedule and [we’re] behind, they’ll help [by sending over volunteers]… Even if you run out of flowers, other self-builts are willing to share [their extras,]” says Bonnie Colcher, a volunteer for 11 years and Volunteer Coordinator of the Sierra Madre Rose Float Association.

The self-builts compete with the professionals for all the awards, but one recognition is especially for them, the ‘Founder’s Trophy’ for most beautiful entry built and decorated by volunteers from the sponsoring community or organization. And though the parade is not simply about getting awards, it’s certainly nice to be recognized for the particularly huge task for the self-builts.

“We’re all in this to make a better parade for everybody, professionals included.” Paul Abbey, volunteer since 1999 and President/Chairman of the South Pasadena Tournament of Roses comments about a time their float was damaged in a fire and a professional float builder, Fiesta Floats, helped by providing a facility and additional people who could get the job done.

The people who stay involved with float projects have a special camaraderie. Says Gary DeRemer, volunteer for 21 years and President of the Downey Rose Float Association, “All the people who build and decorate are family to me. We don’t always get along, but we all work as a team and love each other.”

And like quirky families, floats can also be temperamental in varying temperatures and situations; not everything comes up roses. There are certainly challenges with each goliath float-creating task. There are bound to be issues: from major glitches (like when La Cañada built an 18-foot wide float that had to go through a 16-foot wide gate) to full-blown panic-stricken re-dos and overnighters (like “the great coconut fiasco” when the glue didn’t work after a cold spell and nearly all the coconut shavings fell off at 2 AM, an hour before Sierra Madre’s float was to make its way to the judges.)

But in the end, to see what was so meticulously cared for over a year, traveling the 5 1/2-mile route on New Year’s Day, makes all the hardships worth it!

As Downey’s float makes its way to Pasadena, “Our city cheers us on. The people on the streets clap for us; and you feel so proud to be a part of something great,” says DeRemer.

Some Unique Aspects of Each Self-Built Float

The Burbank Tournament of Roses Association is celebrating 100 years since their first float entry in 1914. Their 82nd float entry this New Year’s will be “Lights… Camera… Action!” (In earlier years an entry was sometimes a marching band or no entry at all.)

Robert Hutt, volunteer for 12 years, currently in charge of Public Relations and past President of the Burbank Tournament of Roses Association, comments on what drew him in. “At first, I wanted to learn how to weld. [But it] took about 5 years before I got into the construction part.” Often, volunteers must learn about nuances of float building before wielding heavy tools.

Recent awards include: Fantasy Trophy (2013) and Mayor’s Trophy for most outstanding city (2012).

For more information, visit www.burbankrosefloat.com

Cal Poly Universities (Pomona and San Luis Obispo) have entered a float since 1949, celebrating 66 years with their 2014 entry “Bedtime Buccaneers.”

Cal Poly’s float is unique even among the self-builts as the only one that’s not a city and is student-centered. The students “have the ingenuity that paves the way…We were the first to have animation (moving parts) and fiber optics… These students love it. They live it. If you cut their veins, it would leak hydraulic fluid. I’m very proud of them,” comments Lehr.

The float is also built on two campuses and brought together in late October. Pomona is in charge of the animation while San Luis Obispo takes care of the float propulsion or drive system.

Recent awards include: Bob Hope Humor Trophy (2013) and Fantasy Trophy (2011).

For more information, visit www.rosefloat.org

The Downey Rose Float Association first entered the parade in 1913. This year, their entry is titled “The Glass Slipper,” which is more elegant than animated.

“We are teaching people how to weld, order flowers and pick [appropriate ones]. Some of our people become florists…” says DeRemer.

And to raise funds for their float, they sell tacos and have concerts in the park, sponsor casino nights, and put on car washes.

Recent awards include: Founders Trophy (2012) and Lathrop K. Leishman Award for most beautiful entry from a non-commercial sponsor (2011).

For more information, visit www.downeyrose.org

La Canada Flintridge Tournament of Roses Association (LCFTRA) had it’s first entry in 1979 and it’s 36th consecutive entry for 2014 is “Dog Gone.”

According to Bill Pounders, volunteer for more than 20 years, on the board of LCFTRA, the learning never stops. With their 1992 float ‘Sherlock Hounds’ “we learned that there is no banner for cuteness.” (A banner proceeds an awarded float down the parade route.)

As for participation, people from all over the foothills join-in. “Local high school students enjoy their winter vacation days doing something different and find float decorating a fun community-service activity,” says Pounders.

Recent awards include: Animation Trophy (2013) and Bob Hope Humor Award (2012).

For more information, visit www.lcftra.org

The Sierra Madre Rose Float Association’s first entry was in 1917. This New Year’s will be their 82nd entry, “Catching the Big One.”

Colcher says it gets more and more challenging every year for their “smallest” of the self-builts, given a city population of around 11,000. “We’re like the little engine that could.” Their budget is the smallest at about $50,000, but “There’s a lot of pride in it, so we get it done.”

Recent awards include: Governor’s Trophy for the best depiction of life in California (2011 and 2010).

For more information, visit www.smrosefloat.org

The South Pasadena Tournament of Roses first entered a float in 1910, making it the oldest self-built float in the parade. This New Year’s they will present “Intergalactic Vacation.”

When explaining how a design is chosen, Abbey said “It’s got to have that ‘ah ha’ factor and wow people… It has to resonate with the audience.” But in the end he doesn’t help build floats “for awards, but I build them to make people happy… it warms my heart to see people enjoy what they’re seeing. It’s the whole reason I do this!”

Recent awards include: Founders’ Trophy (2013) and Fantasy Trophy (2012).

2012 Founder’s Trophy winner – Downey’s “Enchanted Paradise”

For more information, visit www.sptor.com

Tattoo Art: More Than Skin Deep

Tattoo-inspired clothing at “My Tattoo” studio in Alhambra, CA
Tattoo-inspired clothing at “My Tattoo” studio in Alhambra, CA

Originally published in The Quarterly magazine, Fall 2013

Tattoos may symbolize rebellion to some, and to countless others, it expresses creativity, freedom and even love beyond words. Whatever your leaning, the rich history and overall artistry of tattoos demands a more thoughtful look into an entirely unique realm of beauty and intrigue.

Today, we find tattoo art on more than skin. It is juxtaposed to painted masterpieces at UCLA’s Hammer Museum during an earlier exhibit featuring Ed Hardy, one of the most renowned tattoo artists.

Vibrant and lively tattoo art is also popularized on items like wallets, shoes, clothing, watches, eye ware, cell phone covers, car seats, baby carriers, special edition spray cans and soda cans.

But from where did these signature designs originate? And what have they evolved into today?

Since the time of our primitive ancestors, tattoos have, at different periods, been a form of spirituality, status, honor, adornment and even punishment. Sometimes they were used as amulets and at other times, a bond between lovers.

The earliest discovery of body modification by coloring the skin was found in an upper Paleolithic cave in France where tools for tattooing were carbon-dated at nearly 40,000 years old. And from 30,000 BC, a carved figure with tattoo markings on the arm was found in Germany.

The oldest evidence of tattoos on an actual person was a surprisingly well-preserved Ötzi Iceman found in a glacier in the Italian Alps, near Austria, carbon-dated at nearly 5,300 years old.

Unlike the needle method used in modern tattoos, the Ötzi Iceman’s markings were made by incisions with charcoal placed inside for coloring. More than 50 lines and crosses were found on his skin; but the evidence for these patterns suggest a more medicinal purpose since they closely follow acupuncture lines.

Before 2,000 BC, women in Egypt were known to have tattoos as a safeguard during pregnancy and against illness. Shortly after, women began to use tattoos as fashionable adornment.

During the millennial transition from BC to AD, from Asia and the Americas to Europe and Africa, evidence indicates that tattoos were in broad use for various purposes.

During the Han Dynasty in China, it was used to mark people as property or criminals. Around the same time but in a different part of the world, it was also used to set apart the upper class. The Greek writer Herodotus, from fifth century BC even stated of Scythians and Thracians, Indo-European tribes, “tattoos were a mark of nobility, and not to have them was testimony of low birth.”

Despite the ebb and flow of tattoo popularity around the world and through the ages, modern tattoos in the United States are believed to have originated from Polynesia.

In 1769, after Captain James Cook’s first exploration of the cultures in the Pacific, he brought back to Europe sketches by Sydney Parkinson of intricately and extensively tattooed Maori men, like that of a “Portrait of a New Zealand Man.” To be tattooed in patterns of dots, swirls and tribal shapes all over the body, including the face, was an honor, a rite of passage and a mark of attraction.

From the Tahitian word “tatau” which means to “strike or mark,” the modern “tattoo” was established. And it’s no wonder that mariners adopted the practice first, bringing a taste of the islands to people on the mainland in Europe and America and helping them grow more accustomed to the art form. Of course, these seamen, often in the Navy, donned nautical symbols and images, like anchors, stars, ships, ocean waves and mythical sea creatures.

And as people traveled more frequently throughout the world, unique types of tattoo art spread. In America today, some of the more popular styles include: black and gray, full color, tribal, portrait realism, pop culture, traditional Asian/oriental and new school or neo oriental.

Though individual tattoos vary vastly, one thing remains: it is most often an immensely personal form of devotion and expression that literally changes the wearer for life. They carry with them at all times, a piece of art, a work of beauty, a memory of a loved one, an object of devotion or a simple symbol of who they are.

Those who are tattooed are just as diverse as the tattoos they wear. For instance, some Christians tattoo Bible verses or words of inspiration on their arms like, “Love God, Love People” in beautiful script. Alex Wu, an ordained minister in Orange County, wears an Asian dragon tattoo, not from a sordid past but from a confident present, an expression of his roots.

A mother wears a realistic portrait of her late son to help her grieve the loss while a group of ladies etch pink ribbons on their skin to help celebrate their friend’s remission from breast cancer.

Though tattoo art is everywhere, etched onto nearly any kind of object, at its very essence it is ink for the skin. And according to Penelope Jones, Assistant Dean of Student Services at the USC School of Fine Arts, when asked about how to differentiate the quality of tattoo art she said, “Because it is site specific, the most successful tattoos take into consideration the placement, the person’s individual physique like the crevices in the skin and hills of the body.”

Kohei Toyama, a tattoo artist at My Tattoo in Alhambra, echoed Jones’ sentiment, adding, “You have to remember you are working near muscle, bone and on a live moving person.”

Even when it is not on the skin, “It is tattoo art because of the history, culture, lifestyle and tradition behind it,” says Andy Tran, one of 5 students, along with Toyama, in the My Tattoo family of artists under master trainer Jess Yen.

When asked about what he would say to skeptics of tattoo art, Toyama replied, “Right now, there is so much skill required… It’s just art.”

And he is right. In Los Angeles alone, a mecca for gifted tattoo artists, the highly talented come from all walks of life.

There are those with a master in fine arts like Roni Zulu, who is also an accomplished cellist, to those who are self-taught, like Dan Smith who was featured on LA Ink (a past reality TV show hosted by tattoo artist, Kat Von D) and a reputable musician to boot. Even Ed Hardy, born in 1945 and raised in Southern California, was bound for Yale, when he decided to become a tattoo artist instead.

As with any excellent artwork, tattoo art comes alive as the artist creates within their confined environment, keeping in mind the cultural roots of the medium and putting their spin on shadow gradients, detailed lines, color combinations, and even 3D-like images to tell a story, the wearers story.

Tattooing is like putting a wonderful illustration on a live canvas. But for those who appreciate the art and desire it on more than skin, it is often placed on objects and found in museums to be admired even more broadly.

When asked where tattoo art is headed, Tran said, “The industry is growing and evolving so quickly, we [as artists] are pushing ourselves to new boundaries. It is limitless.”

History of tattoo credits: “Tattoo” by Thomas, Cole and Douglas; Smithsonian.com; http://archaeologiemuseum.it/en/node/262

Summer Sleep-Away Camps: A Tradition of Fun and Growth

Boating with friends at campOriginally published in The Quarterly magazine, Summer 2013

5 AM. There was a biting chill in the air at the edge of a wood-planked pier on Catalina Island. But fighting against common sense, I dove into an even more frigid Pacific. Every nerve ending was jolted to attention as a rush of exhilaration forced my limbs to move, propelling me toward the sandy shores of Camp Fox.

What would compel me, a kid more than 30 years ago, to go “polar bearing?” Peer pressure? Maybe. Stupidity? Probably. The pure rush of mad fun? Most definitely.

It was summer. I was at camp. And I was going to make the most of my week away from my parents. The expectation of making new friends, enjoying nature and having fun was a given. Little did I know that I would also be educated there: learn new skills, build self-confidence and be inspired to become a better person. This masked learning occurred with each successive camp, whether it was a traditional outdoor activity camp, Girl Scout camp, gymnastic camp or church camp, I grew, transforming for the better.

Megan McDuffie, in her 11th year of being a volunteer or camp director at YMCAs Camp Whittle, reflects on her experience there. “It’s powerful to see kids who came in through camp, giving back to the community… In an unplugged environment, it’s valuable to get back to nature while connecting with other campers.”

And for the last 152 years, children in America have been experiencing the multi-faceted thrill of overnight camps.

In 1861, an educator and abolitionist with Christian values, Fredrick William Gunn and his wife, Abigail took a group of children camping. The youth from “The Gunnery,” the Gunn’s school in Connecticut, went on a 10-day “Civil War-inspired training” that included swimming, fishing, hiking and boating. About 30 boys and 12 girls participated in the trip that would ignite a camping movement, making Gunn the “father of recreational camping.”

In the 1870s, the Gunn’s continued camp at Lake Waramaug. In 1874, the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) opened a camp for girls who needed rest from their non-stop working conditions, while a couple private camps sprang up in 1876 and 1881.

The YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in New York opened Camp Dudley in 1885, the longest continually operating camp in the United States.

By 1902, Camp Kehonka for girls was founded in New Hampshire by Laura Mattoon, teacher and creator of bifurcated clothing for girls so that they could move more freely outdoors.

Eleanor Eells, social worker, camp advocate and camp historian, said of Mattoon in her 1978 publication Eleanor’s Vignettes, “She understood well the place women were to occupy in the twentieth century and the many ways in which the camp experience could be a preparation. Her ideas about camping education, and women’s role were in advance of her time.”

The LA YMCA started its first summer resident camp in 1912. In 1914, after the South Pasadena YMCA (later adding San Marino to its name) was founded, campers from the new Y joined the LA camp.

In addition to traditional camp activities like horseback riding, kayaking, archery and a ropes course, unique to the Y’s camp is the rag program of setting personal goals, which also began in 1914 by Thomas Caldwell.

“Ragging” a friend meant bestowing one of various bandana-like colored cloths around a person’s neck as an outward symbol for an inward commitment toward betterment. Lorenzo Frias, a Freshman at South Pasadena High School and on the leadership track at Y camps said, “It’s an amazing experience. It changes you. I even have a friend with anger management issues who just changed. He became nice!”

In 1910, the same year Boy Scouts of America and Camp Fire USA began, Alan S. Williams founded the Camp Directors Association of America, known today as the American Camp Association (ACA), standardizing camp quality for safety, staffing, health and programming.

The ACA helped take camps to a new level of excellence. “Educators are at the core of the camp community, professionalizing the field and raising the professional caliber,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.

Today, there are nearly 200 overnight camps in California (162 are ACA accredited) and close to 2000 nationwide (1,636 are ACA accredited). That’s more than 14,000 sessions in all!

Along with local traditional camps, like Catalina Island Camps (since 1922) and the YMCA’s Camp Whittle (since 1958), there are also popular interest group camps like Camp Cherry Valley on Catalina Island for Boy Scouts (since the 1920s), Winacka Girl Scouts camp in San Diego (since 1974) and a nondenominational Christian camp at Forest Home in Forest Falls (since 1938).

Currently, the colorful palate of sleep-away camps is mind-boggling. One can choose among an in exhaustive list of camps centered on: every imaginable sports activity, art, science, language and cultural experiences.

There are even technology camps that focus on computers, programming, iPads, iPhones, gaming and game design (internaldrive.com); then to rehabilitate from too much technology use, there’s a ranch and rustic living camp (jamesonranchcamp.com).

Some unique experiences include: secret agent, girl power, Hollywood stunt, rock star, flying trapeze, extreme action, fashion, DJ, broadcast, culinary camps and more (paliadventures.com). Or if astronomy and space exploration are a passion, there’s Astro Camp (guidediscoveries.org).

I don’t remember all the things I did at the many camps I attended, but I do remember my awe of nature, a force bigger than myself. I remember the people and how they influenced the way I felt about myself.

There were crazy fun counselors who did ridiculously silly things like rinse into a cup only to pass it on for the next counselor to do the same. There were campers who told scary stories about bores that would gore us in the night if we stepped out of our cabins and bees that could spit blinding poison into eyes. And there were “friends” who made me ask a boy to dance, leaving me humbled by the trauma of it even now.

I learned silly songs I can still recite perfectly today. I relaxed on logs, doing nothing but cultivate deeper friendships. The saturated weeks I spent with people proved to draw them closer than years of casual interactions. And if they asked me again to jump into ice-cold waters in the middle of the ocean, I just might do it.

Resources for local camps: camppage.com, kidscamp.com, ymcala.org

Special thanks to Stephanie Yuen at the South Pasadena/San Marino YMCA and Kim Bruno at the American Camp Association for contributing to this story.

History of camp credits: connecticuthistory.org, acacamp.org and summercamphandbook.com