La Jolla mural pays tribute to ancient ads and arches

The south facing side of ‘McCairn’ by Roman de Salvo at 5535 La Jolla Blvd.

Dating back to prehistoric times, cairns (a human-made pile of stones) have been used to mark important areas, trails, summits and more. And the latest installation in the Murals of La Jolla public art program now uses an image of cairns to mark the entrance to the community of Bird Rock.

Depicting cairns in the shape of a “M,” with a mountainous landscape, “McCairn,” by Roman de Salvo is now on view over 5535 La Jolla Blvd. It replaces Julian Opie’s, “Walking in the City.”

Murals of La Jolla curator Lynda Forsha said: “Roman de Salvo’s mural carves new territory in that it is conceptually intertwined with its site in Bird Rock and its site on McGinty Mountain, where McCairn was made and photographed by the artist. De Salvo has created a community gateway that simultaneously references ancient and modern forms, both of which are deeply embedded in our psyches.”

To create the image, de Salvo hiked to McGinty Mountain to create a double-arched cairn and photograph it from both sides.


“While accessible by trail, McGinty Mountain is a challenging hike that limits the audience,” he said. “So having this platform was the ultimate showcase.”

The north facing side of ‘McCairn’ by Roman de Salvo at 5535 La Jolla Blvd.

The method also plays right into de Salvo’s go-to art form of sculpture.

He studied sculpture and visual arts at UC San Diego, and when asked to create a mural — which he is the first to admit is not his medium — looked to create one and document it. For the La Jolla image, he used photographs from both sides and put it on either side of the mural, giving the impression viewers are seeing through it.


“This is right up my alley, yet different for me,” de Salvo said. “Working with my hands is my main focus, but I’ve done a lot of things years ago in grad school where photography was a useful means of translating these things that were otherwise inaccessible. This is a similarly great opportunity.”

Of his participation in the Murals of La Jolla program, he added: “I’m excited. It’s always exciting to be a participant in some art-making activity. It’s what I’m here for. It’s what I do.”

Playing off the proximity of the mural to the business district of Bird Rock, de Salvo said, “The site is interesting in that it is a two-sided sign with a commercial relationship built in. I started thinking about signs and graphics. I thought it suited that site to be a classic business sign you see on the side of the road, just done in an even more constructed method.”

Drawing on perhaps the most iconic images in advertising — the McDonald’s golden arches — the image plays on advertising and how it has evolved.

“The message is bringing together an ancient method with modern commerce,” he said. “You don’t see buildings designed with signs above them anymore. This is a situation where the sign above the building refers to pastime of people driving and looking around them on the roadside, and my contribution of the sign is a harkening back even further to a real ancient trail-marking habit that people have done throughout history.”

Speaking to the broader contribution of sculptures to architecture, de Salvo said, “In the Victorian era or the Rococo era … Sculptures would adorn buildings and add interest. In the modern era, the disciplines retreated to their corners for some sort of purity in their field. … In response to that, we have had a return to art having a place in the built environment — whether it is applied after the fact or public art or artists collaborating with an architect.”

At the same time, the “arches” documented are a nod to the signage over some of the main streets in communities such as North Park, Solana Beach, Little Italy and more.

“They are not so much gateways, but they denote a special spot in the urban world that this is a neighborhood center. Those are special places and centers to communities. Not all neighborhoods have them,” he said.


De Salvo grew up in Reno, Nevada, which has its own arch welcome people to the city. “This whole arch business has been a subject of interest for me as a sculpture for a long time. It’s something to experience as people pass by.”

The Murals of La Jolla program was created in 2010 by the La Jolla Community Foundation and subsequently relinquished to the care of the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, which oversees the program and hosts free, guided walking tours in the summer.

There are currently 15 murals in place around town, funded solely by private donations. For more information, visit