Jan. 26, 2020. A day the city of Los Angeles may never forget; a day it lost legendary basketball player Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, along with seven others, all killed in a helicopter crash.
When the news broke, people around the world paid tribute to Kobe. Lakers fans wore old Kobe jerseys. Candles were lit on street corners. People dropped off flowers at countless memorials. But those memorials would eventually have to be taken down. But artists have created more lasting tributes to Kobe all over Orange and Los Angeles County.
Vonn Sumner, an art professor at Fullerton College, believes murals are made by artists as a way to define themselves collectively as a group rather than individually. “We use art to memorialize the dead, sometimes, and to try to give the dead a kind of ‘life’ beyond their own lifetime,” says Sumner.
Mike Asner, who operates the website “Kobe Bryant murals” has counted nine murals in Orange County and 188 In Los Angeles County. Asner has learned about the murals through Lakers fans, Kobe fans and muralists who have reached out to him worldwide. Asner started tracking the murals when they first started appearing the day after the crash, Jan. 27. He wanted this to be a way for him to pay tribute to his idol.
Many of the artists felt the same way as Asner. They all were huge Kobe fans and wanted to pay tribute to their idol.
Sebastian Vela has painted between 15-30 murals of Kobe. One is on the wall of London’s Pub and Grill in Artesia and another is in Boyle Heights, on the side of Boyle Heights Dental Care. The Boyle Heights painting is Kobe surrounded by Black Mamba snakes. “The Black Mamba” was his nickname on the basketball court. The Artesia painting has Gianna sitting on top of her dad’s shoulders while he is shaking hands with late rapper Nipsey Hussle. The background displays Downtown L.A. as a view from the heavens.
Hussle was a rapper from Los Angeles who was shot and killed at his clothing store, Marathon, on March 31, 2019. He was 33. Known for his songs “Grinding All My Life” and “Racks in the Middle,” Hussle was devoted to revitalizing the Crenshaw neighborhood by supporting local businesses.
Vela wanted to have a mural featuring Kobe and Hussle because he thought both were L.A. legends.
Vela’s friend and owner of London’s Pub and Grill, Raj Patel, held a community unveiling of the mural at 8:24 p.m.—referencing Kobe’s two jersey numbers, 8 and 24—on Feb. 24, the same day as the memorial at Staples Center. Over 500 people came in Lakers gear, holding candles to honor Kobe.
“So many people came for not only the artwork but for Kobe,” says Vela.
Andrew Dorsey, the owner of the restaurant Social in Costa Mesa, hired artist Efrin Andaluz, to do a painting on the side of their restaurant. The piece features Kobe looking at the other victims who died in the crash and Gianna holding onto him. “We didn’t really want to do something that was just Kobe and his daughter. We wanted to include the whole family of everyone involved in the helicopter crash that day,” Said Dorsey.
Former Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, who perished in the accident, alongside his wife, Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Allysa Altobelli is featured within the painting, bringing a complexity of togetherness throughout the mural.
Dorsey believed this mural held a special connection to Costa Mesa because everyone on the flight lived within 5-10 miles of Social.
The most satisfying part to Andaluz was drawing Gianna.
“I wanted to make sure I took my time on her face and her curls and to bring out her purity from the youth, to bring out that sincere vibe,” says Andaluz.
Santa Ana has always been a city known for the arts, hosting over 20 galleries and 10 in the downtown area. Three Kobe murals have gone up in Santa Ana, just 12 miles away from where he lived in Newport Beach.
One mural, located on a wall behind a house in Santa Ana, by Alepsis Hernandez, features Kobe and Gianna playing basketball. Gianna is bringing a ball to her team’s side of the court, while Kobe is doing his signature look, biting the inside of his jersey. Hernandez said the homeowners asked her to do this piece because they wanted to find a way to give back to the community.
Thomas Ngo, whose mother owns the house, says they always had murals on the back wall. This Kobe mural was to replace an old one that was hit by a drunk driver. Ngo wanted a Kobe mural not to just pay tribute, but to unite the city of Santa Ana at a time when it was being torn apart due to COVID-19 and politics.
This piece was one of Hernandez’s personal favorites, because of how it brought people together.
While she was working on this piece, people were constantly driving by, honking their horns and cheering her on. Locals dropped off water, Gatorade and snacks as she painted in the heat to have the mural ready by Kobe Day, Aug. 24, 2020.
“What really drives him to me, was the mamba mentality,” says Hernandez. “His drive was crazy and that’s what I tried to embody in my work. I wanted to be him but in the art world.”
Mamba mentality was something Kobe preached about to athletes and non-athletes. It is about obsession, mastering your professional craft and putting it before your regular life. It is about wanting to be great no matter what you are doing, whether you’re someone striving to be league MVP, a 4.0 student, or an artist with the stroke of a paintbrush.
Louie Pallasino started painting a piece outside of GCS Clothing Store and Art Gallery in downtown Santa Ana. His mural of Kobe took him three days to do and was featured on local news stations in Southern California.
Pallasino was in disbelief when he heard about the loss of Kobe. “Losing him was like losing the king of L.A.,” he says.
The noblest art is making others feel something, whether it’s joy, empathy, or comfort. Art always knows how to hold the wary. A thought by Pallasino: “Something so tragic can bring people together.”