Torero in front of his restored mural. Photo by Mario A. Cortez

Muralist Mario Torero spent a recent Saturday morning giving his outdoor opus “A Flight to a Place in the Sun” its first-ever complete renovation alongside friends and collaborators.

He had already thought of restoring the mural he had originally painted in 1978 as a gang mediation project in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood.

But when the piece on the corner of 28th and B streets was recently vandalized, Torero knew it was time to get working.

The last time Torero repaired damage on the painting was in 2012, when he covered up petty graffiti and tended to some, but not all, of its elemental damage. 

“When a mural isn’t complete, the people know it,” said Torero. “So to me, the graffiti was like a type of message saying. ‘Hey, come on.”

Someone had crudely spray-painted facial covers over the nose and mouths of two of the mural’s portraits — presumable digs at precautions related to the spread of coronavirus — with the line “Paranoia Runs Deep” from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” scrawled underneath them.

“The lady they painted [on] is my mother and the child is my grandnephew,” Torero said.

Torero opted to incorporate the vandalism into his work in a constructive way. He painted surgical masks over the coverings made by the vandal and added the Buffalo Springfield line in a more artistic manner.

Torero restoring the vandalized section of his mural. Photo by Mario A. Cortez

And he finally completed his mural.

Torero had originally included a torch-carrying silhouette atop a Pegasus, but left it faceless at the time because he couldn’t think of someone worthy back then of embodying social struggles. Now, it bears the likeness of George Floyd.

“If we were to leave it like it used to look, it would be like nothing happened,” Torero said. “Everything here is part of a healing process.”

Damage on the piece was discovered in mid May by the owners of Golden Hill Liquor, where the mural is painted, when they arrived to open shop for the day.

“We really respect and appreciate the neighborhood, it’s full of good people,” said Nathan Abbo, whose family has owned the business since 1986. “So when we see something like this, it’s shocking.”

Persisting through decades of weathering and gentrification, Torero’s mural is both fantastic and surreal. A flying saucer piloted by two women zooms through space. The profile of a Navajo elder and a translucent bearded man look out into infinity. The once-faceless character on which Floyd’s face now shines represents the spirit of the community.

There is also portraits of a diverse group of long-time Golden Hill residents.

“So many generations have grown up with that mural,” Torero said. “I’m really glad about that.”

Painting the mural in 1978. Note the faceless man on the Pegasus. Photo courtesy of Mario Torero

The corner on which the mural is located was the site of an old turf war between the neighborhood’s Lomas crew and a group from nearby Sherman Heights.

The corner was also where an artist collective Torero belonged to relocated after city leaders razed their downtown hub for Horton Plaza, an urban mall project planned to “revitalize” downtown San Diego during the late 1970s.

He remembers this period as an “arts explosion” which took over the city. Torero had just come off of working on his first pieces at historic Chicano Park, and artists of all backgrounds were putting up work throughout the city.

Fed up with the vandalism on the constantly tagged liquor-store wall, neighbors called Torero to incorporate the youths from the conflicting groups into a project to foster community pride.

“So many people came together in making this mural, that is why it has been respected and protected because the people know and respect the history,” Torero said.

He’ll continue to work on restoring other pieces throughout San Diego in the coming weeks, including a portrait at Chicano Park of Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. He was also vandalized with a spray paint mask.