Levi Ponce grew up in a not-so-vibrant suburb north of Los Angeles, known for its gangs — the same neighborhood that former gang member turned actor Danny Trejo is from. But when he moved away to California State University Northridge at 18, instead of forgetting his past seven years later, he came back to his hometown, Pacoima, to make it a prettier place.
Not only has the artist made a mile worth of murals, he’s also connected the community through painting — an art form he says he learned from his father — as a sign painter for local restaurants and businesses, who is also a muralist.
“That’s how I got started,” says Ponce, who started his own sign painting business in high school, which put him through school. “In college, I really pushed myself. I majored in animation…On the weekends, I started doing these murals to give back. Immediately after the first one, I was on the first page of the paper. I saw what a difference it made — it impacted the community.”
He says he officially started in December of 2011 and hasn’t stopped since — the biggest of about a dozen independent and 30 collaborative works is 20 feet by 70 feet and the smallest, 12 feet by 20 feet.
“Everybody has a good time,” says the 25-year-old. “I’m able to engage the entire spectrum of society. I get teachers to come out, I get homeless people, I get gangbangers.”
He says none of his work is vandalized, because he approaches the local gangs and asks them to join in.
“Everyone’s allowed to participate,” says the friendly-voiced Ponce. “They’re usually on board, because they’re used to being rejected and pushed away…They are excited to exhibit their skills and artwork. They bring food, materials and spray cans. It’s incredible. Before you know it, everyone wants their neighborhood to be beautiful.”
He says what he’s witnessed is that gang members crave beauty too.
“It really changes their attitudes,” says Ponce. “The same people that would graffiti my mural are the same people who go around at night protecting it.”
He says while painting his first mural, it was just him, but four others joined in towards the end. During his last mural, 50 people participated.
“It’s kind of getting out of hand,” he says laughing. “I have to find jobs for all these people. I find myself painting less and organizing more.”
He says one of his all-time favorite murals was of the Mexican Mona Lisa he painted last June.
“It has to do with a mural ordinance that was drafted in Los Angeles last spring…a lot of murals were going to be destroyed,” says Ponce. “Regardless of what it said, I was going to keep painting them. If you push art, art’s going to push back. The Mona Lisa…combined the warrior idea with Chicano culture — showing how art would push back.”
Since then, he says the ordinance has been redrafted four times, but no matter the outcome, he says he will never stop making murals.
“If I was blind, I’d still be doing murals,” says Ponce. “I want to be the premiere LA muralist, and in the future, I want to be a premiere world muralist like Kent Twitchell — he is my idol.”
To earn a living, Ponce works as a freelance animator — mostly motion graphics for independent films.
“I’m not as experienced as I am with a brush, but it does pay well,” says Ponce, who also teaches at a San Fernando High School through Urban Arts Partnership. “I teach integrative art, algebra and creative writing through the arts. I compare math to painting, and I trick the kids into learning math.”
Ponce says the precise reason he came back to Pacoima was to give back and help give everyone a second chance.
“Danny Trejo is from Pacoima,” he says. “He was a criminal there and was in and out of state penitentiaries for 30 years, but he changed his life around completely…It shows anybody can change. He still sponsors people in AA meetings, and he didn’t change addresses.”
He says his trick to unifying his community has been concentrating on people’s similarities rather than their differences.
“My very neighborhood inspires me,” he says. “It’s everything we have in common.”