The LA Riots: April 29th, 1992

Painting by Mark Vallen
“Lost Angeles.” Mark Vallen. Oil sketch, 1992.

I did this small oil sketch on canvas after witnessing the Los Angeles Rodney King riots of April 29th, 1992. Titled Lost Angeles, the canvas is part of a series of paintings memorializing the violence that swept across my city. When people heard the LAPD officers who had nearly beat King to death were found “not guilty” the city went up in flames.

However, my painting was also based on an earlier, but just as ominous event in LA history, the 1965 Watts Riots. Sometime in the early 1970’s I met an older black American who had lived through the ‘65 riots, though I can’t remember his name. During our brief encounter we discussed many topics, including the Civil Rights Movement.

My friend started to describe to me the circumstances surrounding the riots, and as his descriptions became more detailed and personal, his manner change to the messianic. He told chilling stories of white cops on a rampage, of national guard troops patrolling the streets with bayoneted rifles and machine guns at the ready. He talked about the gangs of Black youth with their molotov cocktails and the rows of burned out shops and businesses.

Then he recounted a story like no other, a tale that obviously had shaken him to the core. As he relayed the account he became still and his eyes grew wider… it was as if he were revealing a mystical experience that had altered his consciousness forever.

He spoke of the burning palm trees of Watts.

During the conflagration of ‘65, rioters set fire to the ubiquitous palm trees that line LA’s city blocks in swaying rows. The site of hundreds of trees blazing away in the night, lighting up the skies with their fiery explosions of sparks, was almost too much for the man to endure. He waxed poetic in his efforts to describe those flaming trees, he struggled to convey how for him, they encapsulated all of the terrible beauty of the riots.

He tried to put into words how he felt watching the columns of smoke and sparks ascending to the heavens, but his speech faltered and sputtered. He was at a loss for words and gave up trying to make clear what he had seen. But there was still a look in his eyes, the knowing look of someone who had seen something inexplicable and dangerous and had lived to tell about it.

For years that man’s story of the burning palm trees haunted me. It was a disquieting image that I always failed at trying to imagine, it was just too much outside of my life experience… until the evening of April 29th, 1992.

On that night I was in downtown LA and caught the staggering sight of rioters setting the city’s palm trees on fire. Like giant torch lights, the fiery trees illuminated the darkened corners of the city. I suddenly understood what that Black man had been trying to tell me so many years ago, and I felt that the responsibility of recounting the story of the blazing palm trees had been entrusted to me.

Since the ‘92 Rodney King riots, I have not been able to look at palm trees in the same way. Soon after the riots I created four small oil paintings based on what I had seen. Three of those paintings are now in a private collection, and the forth artwork remains in my possession; in that particular painting illustrating this essay, you can see LA’s famous City Hall building in the distance. Today I feel as though those four original paintings were just preparatory oil sketches, and so I’m now preparing to do larger, more detailed oils of those remarkable burning palm trees.

I fear that the palm trees of Los Angeles will be burning again in the not too distant future.

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