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Saving A Music Lover’s Mural At SDSU

Conservator Gary Hulbert layers the mural with resin, tissue paper and fabric...

Photo by Angela Carone

Above: Conservator Gary Hulbert layers the mural with resin, tissue paper and fabric before he removes it from the wall.


Efforts are underway to save a secluded 1970s mural on the campus of San Diego State University. Some of the most beloved rock bands in history walked by this mural on their way to perform on campus. But saving it is no easy task.

At a campus Starbucks, SDSU students are busy studying for finals and saying their goodbyes for the summer. Most of these students have no idea that in a seldom traveled hallway below the coffee shop, there’s a slice of campus history.

I took students Kia Bonot and Jensine Narvaza down an abandoned hallway to see a 9x14 foot mural depicting Aztec warriors as rock musicians. Needless to say, the young women are surprised...and impressed. "Oh, I see. Whooaaa. That’s so intense. I love the color it’s so vivid." Nervaza is disappointed more students don't know about it. "I think it’s just really trippy going to school here for two years and not knowing this was here. It just blows my mind, because this is a really pretty piece of work and it’s huge!"

The mural features a band of musicians, with instruments like an electric guitar and a keyboard. Kia Bonant noted, "I think it’s cool how they incorporated modern musical instruments with the classic Aztec features...Montezuma would have been proud."

The mural was painted in 1976 by a Chicano Studies lecturer named Arturo Enselmo Roman and his students. It’s next to what was once The Backdoor, a small music club that hosted some of today’s most important musicians at the start of their careers.

Jaime Lennox is writing a book about the music history of SDSU. She rattles off a list of the bands who played The Backdoor during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. "Talking Heads, The Go Gos, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Romeo Void, Wall of Vodoo, The Beat Farmers, Violent Femmes, REM, Docken, Metallica, The Replacements, Love and Rockets, Jimmy Buffett, Chuck Mangione, King Fish, Etta James, John Lee Hooker with Big Mama Thorton, Captain Beefheart. The list goes on and on."

Lennox says the venue was small enough to stand 30 feet from these bands. And, one could see musicians like Patti Smith for $2.50 at the time. "It was very, very inexpensive. There are flyers from the shows with the prices and you wouldn’t believe it. A $1 to see some of these bands. That’s crazy!"

SDSU graduate Dave Walters saw plenty of bands at The Backdoor in the 1970s, including The Ramones. "That was right after they started out and it was before everybody got punked out and thought they had to pogo and stand up and spit at them. So everybody sat down for the whole show."

Lennox says that fits with the ambiance at the club. "Back then the manager told people it was a very casual atmosphere. You didn’t have to wear shoes, you could bring lawn chairs, bean bags, as long as you didn’t obstruct the view."

The Ramones, and all of these bands, would have walked down that hallway from the greenroom to the Backdoor stage. They would have passed the large mural of rocking Aztec warriors.

Seth Mallios is chair of the Anthropology Department at SDSU. He says the mural was probably done as a tribute to all of the bands who played The Backdoor.

Mallios has been fighting to save this mural before the building gets demolished on June 1 to make way for a new student center.

But saving it is no easy task. Mallios explains: "I tell you, I wish all these artists would have painted on canvas. That would make my life so much easier. And if they decided to paint on walls I wish they’d put down some plaster first."

The mural is acrylic paint on poured concrete, which makes removing it a challenge. Gary Hulbert is a conservator who works on paintings at the Hearst Castle in Central California. "I think the analogy could be that you have the acrylic directly on the concrete wall and it would be like peeling a sunburn off a 9 x 14 foot area." OUCH!

Other conservators turned the job down, but Hulbert took the challenge. Most murals have a canvas backing. Since this one is painted directly on concrete, Hulbert says you "have to protect the front so that when you peel the paint layer off, it doesn’t tear or crumble."

Hulbert is layering the mural with resin, tissue paper, and fabric to strengthen it before peeling the large mural from the wall. "So it’s a basic principle that you support the front of the painting and then remove it as carefully as you can from the back."

Mallios has raised $15,000 to remove the mural. He says from the moment he saw it, he knew he would fight to save it. "You know this mural does not take itself too seriously. All the characters are having a great time, the lead singer has a black t-shirt with a marijuana leaf on it and he’s got these Kiss platform shoes, it’s very entertaining and it just screams 1970s rock."

Once removed, the mural will be put in storage until Mallios can raise additional funds and find a new home for it on campus, hopefully one where students have a chance to enjoy it.

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