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The Cat Man: Street Artist Leo Limón Raises Awareness Of The L.A. River Through Graffiti

Tiara Chiaramonte |
May 31, 2012 | 9:19 p.m. PDT



One of LA's first street artists calls for a place to graffiti legally. (Tiara Chiaramonte)
One of LA's first street artists calls for a place to graffiti legally. (Tiara Chiaramonte)
 In the storm drains of the L.A. river, a man sweeps the dead leaves that have collected from nearby trees. After he finishes cleaning, he neatly sets down markers and spray cans in bright primary colors.

It is midday and the sun is pounding on his skin causing him to sweat profusely.

But he proceeds to choose a white spray can and feverishly covers the storm drain shaped like a cat in paint.

When the artist finishes his work, a smiling cartoon cat with cherry red lips, a bright lime green nose and pink peace sign sunglasses covers the storm drains. But this is no young tagger wielding a spray can.

It’s the work of one of L.A.’s most famous street artists, the veteran Leo Limón, whose work is sanctioned by the city.

Limón’s career in art and activism spans from paintings in the mayor’s office to working on Frank Zappa’s album art. But his hallmarks are the cat faces he paints on the storm drains of the Los Angeles River.

“His cats have become part of the myth of the river,” said Shelly Backlar, the executive director of Friends of the Los Angeles River, a non-profit dedicated to restoring the Los Angeles river.

“The cats have a whimsy and color that you don’t normally think about when you think of the Los Angeles river,” continued Backlar. “He saw the river that way before there were any of these plans to change it and helped bring awareness to it.”

At 59, Limón has a youthful face with big dark brown eyes that are always smiling and a thin white beard that he artfully braids. His face is starkly contrasted by his large, aging body that is plagued with back problems that keep him in physical therapy three days a week. Despite these setbacks, Limón still rides his bike along the river to paint his famous cats.

He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a home with no father. His early memories of growing up in East L.A. with his mother, aunt and uncle are of a very different place than today.

“My uncle would sell burritos in this big lot and people would trade ingredients with him to make a good salsa for the next day,” recalled Limón. “It was very rural compared to now.”

During these early years of Limón’s life, his love of art began. Growing up poor, it was difficult for Limón to get even simple drawing supplies. His mother would save the butcher paper. Then she would clean, flatten, and dry it for Limón to draw on the other side.

Elementary school was his first encounter with the river cats. On a field trip to the L.A. Zoo, his bus passed the river.

“I remember coming close to the zoo and everyone yelling, cats, cats, cats” said Limón. “And I thought how could they see such small animals? But it was the huge faces on the storm drains painted by Jackie Meyer and her husband.”

Limón never forgot about seeing those painted felines on the river. Years later, after the cats had disappeared from the drains, he attempted to make one himself.

“In high school, I tried to paint a cat,” Limón said. “I brought cans of paint, rags, thinner, brushes. And I tried to paint Felix the cat. It was really terrible.”

The technical difficulties of painting the storm drains with brushes led Limón to give up painting the cats until he saw teenagers tagging. He changed his medium.

During high school he was also accepted into a special art program at the Otis Art Institute. There he learned important skills, like screen printing.

After high school, Limón was drafted into the military. The Vietnam war was raging. Even while he was overseas, Limon looked for ways to express himself artistically, finding work as a military photographer.

When he finished his service, he began to seriously pursue a career in art. He worked with various famous Latino artists, like Carlos Almaraz and the art group Los Four. Eventually he went to trade school to be certified as a sign painter to make extra money.

“I tell all the homies out there who are taggers writing on the walls that I’m certified in it,” says Limón laughing.

After a few years between jobs as a sign painter, a job opportunity that changed Limón’s life came about in Self Help Graphics, a nationally recognized center for Latino arts in East LA that develops artists in print making. The organization’s mission has been to promote art among local youngsters.

He was instantly hired and worked at Self Help Graphics for over ten years. “I feel like Self Help Graphics was put on this earth for me,” Limón said.

In Self-Help Graphics, Limón worked to teach the youth of East Los Angeles how to express themselves creatively through printmaking.

He worked with children to channel their creative interests away from graffiti and gangs and into art. He was also able to support his wife and three children as an artist. After he finished his residency at Self Help Graphics, Limón began to struggle.

“You don’t make it as an artist,” Limón said, “you make it as a survivor trying to find something out there that’s palatable for you and your family, and I couldn’t find that for a while.”

He volunteered as a group facilitator at the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute mentoring Chicano youth.

“I try to bring something to their life that will maybe make a difference,” says Limón. “A man talking about doing right in life, having respect, showing responsibility.”

He also works with Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Boys and Girls Club of America to bring awareness about the river. He hosted a huge event with the two organizations where he and more than 100 children painted cats on 32 of the storm drains.

“He has a way of being an equal with kids, not necessarily a mentor, even though that’s what he’s doing,” says Backlar.

Limón said youngsters need a place to make public art. While he has permits from the city to paint his cats on the river, they are regularly covered by the graffiti abatement program. He said such treatment is disrespectful to the type of art he legally practices.

“What makes art legitimate?” Limón asked. “Are you legitimate by putting it on canvas and framing it? Then maybe it gets into a gallery and is sold and put is put in a museum. Then is it legitimate?”

According to various surveys, graffiti costs the city of Los Angeles nearly $30 million to remove yearly. Limón believes that there is a better option that involves funneling some of that money into an art park.

For years, Limón has been lobbying for a park that would be surrounded by concrete walls that young artists could legally spray paint. The park would be named Art Peace Park and it would be located next to the river under the 110 freeway where North San Fernando Road and Figueroa Street cross.

“Why is the government trying to hide the people’s word and art?” asked Limón. “There needs to be a place like this where youngsters could come and paint and not be arrested for it.”

The sun begins to set and Limón inspects his finished cat. He carefully positions himself so he will be in a picture he takes of the cat. He does this after he finishes every work to document it because the graffiti removal program will eventually paint over it.

As he cleans his art supplies, two men in their twenties approach him. “Are you painting one of those cats? Are you the cat man?” one shouts.

He smiles and signals at them to come down shouting back, “Yes, I am the cat man. Painting cats for 39 years.”

The two approach him looking nervous but excited to meet “the cat man.” Both keep telling him what an honor it is to meet him.

They give their names as Space and Lurk, and both are aspiring graffiti artists who said Limón had been an inspiration.

As they leave, they tell Limón that Art Peace Park needs to happen. The community needs it and they would be behind him in whatever he does to make it possible.

Reach reporter Tiara here



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