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Under an orange beam with the words MacDonald Avenue carved out, a mural of an old trolley is painted on a wall under the I-80 underpass.

Grant to extend life of Richmond street art: ‘Those murals are what greets residents and people who visit our city.’

on October 10, 2023

Two major murals representing scenes from Richmond’s past are getting a makeover. 

As part of the $4.1 million Richmond Art and Light Project, the “Past Perfect” and “Revisionist History of San Pablo Avenue” murals will get reconditioned by the original artist, John Wehrle. 

The Richmond Arts & Culture Commission had the murals painted on Interstate 80 underpasses intersecting two of the city’s major thoroughfares in the 1990s. “Past Perfect” on Macdonald Avenue depicts the arrival of a ghost trolley from 1908 set in modern times, while “Revisionist History of San Pablo Avenue” shows native Ohlone tribe members engaging with current Richmond residents in a street scene made up of storefronts.

“I think that Richmond residents, when they pass by, can recognize some of Richmond’s history in the murals, and they’re not about to let it go so easily,” said Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez, a Richmond artist who is part of the clean-up team. “They also understand that those murals are what greets residents and people who visit our city, so they want to see them repaired for that reason”

A mural under I-80 shows an old trolley with a few people walking outside of it. The paint is dingy and it is smudged here and there with dirt.
John Wehrle’s “Past Perfect” is about to get cleaned up. (Photos by Matthew Mitchell)

Craig Nagasawa, an art instructor at UC Berkeley, said Wehrle’s work is an example of the importance of public art. 

“The murals create a conversation about the place, the history, the community, and the community’s identity for where they’re located,” he said. “They kind of connect us all together through the larger past and the friction with what is in our present moment.” 

In recent years, “Past Perfect” and “Revisionist History of San Pablo Avenue” have become the targets of vandalism, particularly unwanted graffiti. 

Wehrle said this is a new problem.

 “When I first started doing these, tagging was really not so much of an issue,” he said. “Now it’s probably the premier issue.” 

The Richmond Art and Light Project is one of over 100 beautification projects funded by the Caltrans Clean California Grant Program, part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $1.1 billion Clean California initiative passed last year. 

In addition to the restoration of Wehrle’s murals, the project will pay for two new murals on the walls opposite the existing murals. Though a contract is still in the works, Wehrle has been tapped for the job. 

At 82, Wehrle is conscious of his age. For this new project, he is recruiting the help of Garcia-Gonzalez and Richmond artist Jerarde Gutierrez.

“One of the reasons that I’m inviting Jerarde and Rebecca is they’re both younger than me. They’re good painters,” he said. “You know, I’m not going to be around forever.”  

Designs for the new artwork still need to be approved, but Werhle hinted at their themes.

“I think the murals will be somewhat more oriented to the future — or to the present future — than the present past of the murals that are already there,” Werhle said. 

The clean-up effort and the new murals are expected to be completed by July.

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