As you drive along the winding Topanga Canyon Road you’ll come across a pair of Terracotta Warriors guarding a giant mousetrap under the eye of three avant-garde faces in what amounts to a whimsical drive-through art gallery.
Great Wall of Topanga
The Great Wall of Topanga sneaks up on you. You’re cruising along Topanga Canyon Boulevard (also known as CA-27) when you round a corner and there, just seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, a strange sight pops into view and beckons for you to slow down and give it a little attention.
The entire installation takes up 48 feet of retaining wall on the east side of the road along a curve, located right across the street from the beloved Froggy’s Topanga Fish Market and in between the bisected Hillside Drive.
The Great Wall of Topanga was created by Rick Denman as sort of an anti-art piece. As the story goes, the concrete retaining wall that supports a balcony on his property got tagged. This was around the time the enigmatic street artist Banksy was in town promoting his film Exit Through the Gift Shop and had been seen spray-painting on structures along the Pacific coast Highway. So Denman’s friends and neighbors suspected Banksy might have been behind the spray-painted art.
This got Denman worried. He really didn’t want rabid Banksy collectors hammering away his retaining wall to abscond with the renegade street artist’s work. As it turns out, the piece was painted by an artist who went by the handle Accountability and worked in the Banksy style.
But that got Denman thinking. Maybe his retaining wall could serve as a sort of canvas. He assembled a bunch of detritus into the words Got Art?, something of an appeal for artists to contribute their own works to the wall, and installed it on the concrete. He then painted “Great Wall of Topanga” and added a Facebook thumbs-up in front of it to let passers-by know about the wall’s Facebook page.
The Art of the Great Wall of Topanga
Over the years, there have been many different iterations of the art displayed on the Great Wall of Topanga. Here are just a few of the different sections of the wall on display today.
Toys Wuz Us. Overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of plastic toys his young boys accumulated, Denman started collecting plastic toys he found on his bike rides (he’s a professional cyclist) and assembled them into a treatise on the nature of disposable plastic playthings. This portion comprises the far right side of the art wall.
Banksy Trap. Denman crafted a giant rat trap with an over-sized spray-paint can as the bait in a tongue-in-cheek nod to Banksy, who often depicts himself as a rat. Initially, the Banksy-attracting rat trap was installed over the shoulder of the road. But a California Highway Patrol officer called it a hazard to cyclists, so Denman moved it so it would be out of the way and would offer better photo opportunities for visitors admiring the wall.
Mt. Rush-Hour. Three faces, emulating Gustav Borglum’s Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, look out at the passing traffic. One is made from a surfboard; another is made up of pieces of push brooms, pool noodles, and car repair ramps; while the third incorporates a kitchen sink for its eyes. Denman is still looking for a fourth candidate.
Terracotta Warriors. Two replica Terracotta Warriors were donated to the wall in 2012. These stout figures required some support, so Denman built cinder block pedestals for them to stand on. They now guard passage to a stairway that leads to his property. Unfortunately someone damaged the two Terracotta statues — breaking off their heads and hands in early 2021.
Butterfly and Gecko. The wall is also home to a butterfly and a gecko, both made from beer bottle caps mounted on plywood. These are a bit challenging to see when driving by the installation, but are easily seen if you stop (safely, please) and walk up to take closer look. You can see the butterfly in the above photo.
Sandy Hook Memorial. In 2012 Denman installed 20 wooden figures, representing children at play, along with the word “Kids” in remembrance of the 20 kindergartners killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Other Art. Though local interest and the wall’s Facebook page, Denman is regularly fielding queries for potential new pieces to display on the wall.
Cars, Bureaucracy, and Time
The installation’s first incarnation appeared on Friday July 16, 2011 — a day that lives in infamy to Southern Californians as “Carmageddon.” That was the first weekend that the 405 was shut down as part of the Sepulvada Pass Improvement Project. Without the 405, other traffic arteries, like Topanga Canyon Boulevard, were expected to take on heavier than normal traffic. And the Great Wall was there to grab their attention.
The Great Wall of Topanga has also received its fair share of negative governmental attention. Denman was accused of soliciting art with the Got Art? tagline and the local Department of Planning threatened him with a $2400 fine for unlawful outdoor advertising.
The wording “Great Wall of Topanga” was also considered illegal advertising because of the Facebook thumbs-up. The whole thing was for a time, painted over.
Based on how it looks today, all the bureaucracy around the wall has been resolved, one way or another.
As popular as it is with the residents along Topanga Canyon, the wall couldn’t get enough additional attention to fund a modest Kickstarter project in 2012, earning only $1,123 of a requested $1,998. But that didn’t dissuade Denman, and the Great Wall of Topanga has been entertaining drivers — an estimated 20,000 daily — for ten years.
But its age is showing, and many of the pieces are covered with that patina of atmospheric grime particular to the Los Angeles basin.
If you’re interested in odd art installations and local curiosities, then the Great Wall of Topanga is very much worth a visit. Just be careful when stopping along or crossing Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Those cars can speed by rather quickly.
More Art in Topanga …
Along the twists and turns of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, you’ll find the Flying Pig of Topanga — a winged pig taking flight.
Great Wall of Topanga
- N Topanga Canyon Road at Hillside Drive, Topanga
- GPS Coordinates: 34.10449, -118.59234 [ Google Maps ]
- what3words: ///rinse.rated.begins