Even in a pandemic, the Kobe mystique thrives with 303 tribute murals … and counting

Christel Deskins

Artist Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta, left, and Mike Asner, creator of the KobeMural website and Instagram account, stand in front of the mural Guetta created of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna five days after they died. The photo was taken on Feb. 27; a month later, heavy rains destroyed […]

Artist Thierry "Mr. Brainwash" Guetta, left, and Mike Asner, creator of the KobeMural website and Instagram account, stand in front of the mural Guetta created of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna five days after they died. The photo was taken on Feb. 27; a month later, heavy rains destroyed the paper and paste tribute on Guetta's building in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue in Mid-Wilshire. <span class="copyright">(Los Angeles Times)</span>
Artist Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta, left, and Mike Asner, creator of the KobeMural website and Instagram account, stand in front of the mural Guetta created of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna five days after they died. The photo was taken on Feb. 27; a month later, heavy rains destroyed the paper and paste tribute on Guetta’s building in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue in Mid-Wilshire. (Los Angeles Times)

Mike Asner wasn’t thinking of quarantines when he created KobeMural.com. He was just a bereaved fan moved by the dozens of tribute murals that suddenly appeared around Southern California after the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed his longtime hero, Kobe Bryant, and eight others, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

“I started seeing all these murals going up — the photos were all over Instagram — and they needed somebody to organize them,” said Asner, a digital marketing director who happened to be between jobs in February. “I had the time, and I decided I needed to build a map for people to find them.”

The murals helped bring people together in their grief, Asner said. Now, thanks to @kobemural Instagram and the KobeMural website Asner created to map the murals, the wall-size tributes can provide another outlet for people who are tired of Netflix or of staying inside but fear going out in public.

Mike Asner, creator of the KobeMural Instagram maps and KobeMural.com. <span class="copyright">(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Mike Asner, creator of the KobeMural Instagram maps and KobeMural.com. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Most of the murals are outside and easily visible from the street, Asner said, although “you just may not be able to stop too long, given the street traffic.” But there are no entry tickets required, and if you can park nearby, no need to even get out of your car. (Of course there are plenty of places to visit, much more than you could manage in a day.)

If you prefer to stay indoors, you can peruse all the murals online.

There were only about 30 murals on the map when Asner started @KobeMural and KobeMural.com in late February, but he updates every night. By mid-March, just as the reality of the pandemic was beginning to hit, the sites featured 164 murals around Southern California, mostly in Los Angeles and Orange County, and an additional 62 in other parts of the world. As of Thursday, there were 303 murals total, including 200 in Southern California, 54 in other parts of the United States and 49 in other countries.

“I’m actually shocked at what’s happening,” Asner said about the murals, but he’s not surprised by the outpouring of affection for Bryant, whom he thinks affected people on three levels.

“He was a basketball player and champion of course, but the second part was his work ethic and the way he went about his life; even people who don’t like sports were inspired by that,” he said. “And finally, he went through a lot of issues, trials and tribulations, but watching him evolve as the father of girls has obviously affected a lot of people. I see friends who don’t follow basketball who are devastated by this because they are fathers, they have girls, and they can’t imagine going through this.”

Graffiti artist Tyke Witnes, 45, is a case in point. When the lifelong Lakers heard news about the crash, “it really rocked everything in my world,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I watched the Lakers — every Thanksgiving, every Christmas — rooting for that guy. I felt so connected to him, and I’d become a father with two daughters, so it really hit home.”

Graffiti artist Tyke Witnes stands in front of his Kobe tribute mural at El Toro Bravo Tortilleria in Costa Mesa, which he painted three days after Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. <span class="copyright">(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Graffiti artist Tyke Witnes stands in front of his Kobe tribute mural at El Toro Bravo Tortilleria in Costa Mesa, which he painted three days after Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Witnes had been planning to paint a tribute mural to the Lakers on the side of the El Toro Bravo Tortilleria, his father-in-law’s market in Costa Mesa, “in hopes they would win the championship this year,” but he scrapped those plans immediately after Bryant’s death.

“I probably didn’t sleep for a day or two,” he said, because he was so busy sketching. Within days, he was painting. A videographer friend, Matt Givot, brought lights to help him work with latex and spray paint and documented his work, parts of which were later included in Snoop Dog’s ESPYS video tribute.

Witnes said he painted through the night, took his girls to school the next morning and returned to finish the mural with the help of friends, who filled in the background and lettered in the names of Bryant’s surviving family members and the others killed in the crash. As they worked, a mariachi band came to play and people began dropping off flowers, cards and candles.

“It was really overwhelming, the people who came out, but for me, it was a way of getting some grief out and doing something for the community,” Witnes said. “I tell people, ‘Kobe had this work ethic, to trust yourself and do your best,’ and I used that same mentality to make this mural.”

Artist Joshua "Prophet Josh" McCadney, a.k.a. @paintedprophet, stands by one of two Kobe tribute murals he created on Melrose Avenue within two weeks of Kobe Bryant's death. <span class="copyright">(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Artist Joshua “Prophet Josh” McCadney, a.k.a. @paintedprophet, stands by one of two Kobe tribute murals he created on Melrose Avenue within two weeks of Kobe Bryant’s death. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Artist Joshua McCadney, 31, felt a similar obsession when he learned Bryant had died. McCadney, who signs his work @paintedprophet, had started working on another piece but painted it over with a portrait of Bryant because he couldn’t focus on anything else.

Michael Jordan was his biggest hero, McCadney said, but he admired Bryant “because, in a sense, he was the biggest MJ fan because he embodied the guy so much, with the same height and the same look and always wanting to be the best. He was a philanthropist, always in his kids’ lives, his Mamba basketball team, his business acumen, sticking with his wife even after stuff happened. … He made sure to keep his family together. He was just a great example of a Black man.”

At first, McCadney said, he thought about painting Bryant “dunking or doing some amazing feat in basketball, but I didn’t really like the idea of him being in a uniform. He was so much more than a basketball player. I wanted you to, like, really appreciate him as a man, as a father, who didn’t just dribble a ball but gave inspiration to the world.”

McCadney used brushes to paint his first mural, “Energy Never Dies,” on the Sorella Boutique at 7829 Melrose Ave. in the Fairfax area, a week after the crash. Then he moved a few blocks east to the Fala Bar at 7751 1/2 Melrose Ave. to paint a tribute mural that included Gigi, called “The Dreamer and the Believer.”

This mural by Joshua "Prophet Josh" McCadney, called "The Dreamer and the Believer," is one of two Kobe murals he painted on Melrose Avenue, this one is at the Fala Bar, 7751 Melrose Avenue. <span class="copyright">(@kobemural Instagram)</span>
This mural by Joshua “Prophet Josh” McCadney, called “The Dreamer and the Believer,” is one of two Kobe murals he painted on Melrose Avenue, this one is at the Fala Bar, 7751 Melrose Avenue. (@kobemural Instagram)

The mural was inspired by a series of photos taken in 2014 by photographer Kent Horner. McCadney found those photos particularly moving because of what they said about Bryant as a father.

“We see a stern man in profile who knows what he’s doing, and she’s on his shoulders, looking at us, kind of goofy,” he said, “She can be relaxed because he’s such a strong parent. He’s allowing her to be a child and that’s a dynamic that isn’t as prevalent as it should be. She doesn’t have to worry about anything, so now she has the freedom to let her mind wander and dream.”

The mural that inspired Asner to start KobeMural.com was destroyed by heavy rains in late March, but while it was up, it drew crowds for weeks. Artist Thierry “Mr. Brainwash” Guetta wrapped the entire front and partial side of his studio at 1251 S. La Brea Ave. in Mid-Wilshire with a huge collage that included photos of Bryant and his daughter, news clippings from Bryant’s life and Bryant’s words, to “love what you do.”

Guetta created the collage in his studio and then copied and enlarged it on a giant printer to a size big enough to cover the wall. He decided to use that paper and paste technique so he could get the mural up quickly, he said. The day it went public, Jan. 31, he left out large bins of Sharpies, inviting visitors to write on the mural to express their grief.

Personal messages covered the lower portion of Thierry Guetta's mural honoring Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue. <span class="copyright">(Los Angeles Times)</span>
Personal messages covered the lower portion of Thierry Guetta’s mural honoring Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue. (Los Angeles Times)

A month later, the mural was covered with comments, messages and names from visitors who stopped, some standing on the shoulders of their friends so they could find a place to write. “Thank you 4 inspiring many,” wrote one person. “May you rest with so much peace Gianna,” wrote another. “I’m so glad you have your dad with you.”

Most of the pens were gone by late February, but visitors kept dropping by, adding to the mementos piled at the bottom of the mural: carefully wrapped bouquets, dried and faded, signed hats and basketballs, deflating balloons, poems printed and mounted on colorful paper and dozens of tall memorial candles.

“They come all day and all night,” said Guetta.

“They’re here because of Kobe. I had to do this because of what Kobe did for us, bringing hope and positivity to Los Angeles and his passion for doing something he loved. I did it out of respect for someone so beautiful, whose life has affected the whole world and brought our community together.”

While we were there earlier this year, more than 30 people stopped for a few minutes at the mural, posing for photos, quietly reading the messages or intently writing their own. One young woman stood up in a convertible as it hurtled down La Brea Avenue, filming the scene as they went by. The visitors included people from Ohio, Toronto and Virginia.

“I’m respectful of how he handled himself on and off the court,” said Enrique Aragon of Pasadena, who visited the mural with his twin boys, daughter and their mother. “He taught me not to be afraid to show your true self.”

Diana Rutledge of Dayton, Ohio, writes a message on a mural honoring Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, located in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. <span class="copyright">(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Diana Rutledge of Dayton, Ohio, writes a message on a mural honoring Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, located in the 1200 block of South La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Guetta said he would still have the mural up today if it weren’t for the heavy record rainfall in mid-March that caused parts of their faces to dissolve. It was just during the beginning of the coronavirus stay-home orders, he said, so he couldn’t access the giant printer he needed to make repairs. “I couldn’t keep it up,” he said. “It was disrespectful to them,” so he saved as much of the paper as he could, with all the signatures, and painted over the wall in red to read: “Stay home. Life is beautiful.”

Someday, Guetta said, he hopes to re-create the mural with all the signatures.

As for Asner, he got a job in March but was laid off again in May because of the coronavirus shutdowns. Through it all, he still takes time to update the website every night. “There’s at least two new ones every day, somewhere worldwide,” he said. “I’m not here to make money or be famous; it’s a labor of love for me.”

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