Haskins, a gregarious man with bright blue eyes and a flair for storytelling, conserved his first outdoor mural in 1975—a badly damaged, bat guano-swathed fresco on the walls of a northern Italian monastery. The painting dated back to 1395. “My intervention was the first scientific investigation of the mural, and the first attempt to decide what its long-term look would be. You can imagine some of the problems that occur when you’ve got 1,000 years of wall painting, in lots of different layers, all on top of each other. Which ones do you keep? How do you decide which ones to preserve? Many times, the answer is not just scientific. Just like murals today, sometimes preserving murals, even from back then, is a political question.”
Since then, Haskins has shifted his focus to the conservation of younger murals because, “Well, obviously, I can’t work on 500-year-old murals anymore—I’m in the United States,” he explains, with his usual candor. Indeed, many of the outdoor paintings that now come his way—whether they’re faded by the sun, marred by vandalism, shaken loose by earthquakes, or painted over by construction crews—come with a heavy dose of emotion, politics, and legal struggles. It’s a cocktail that’s somewhat unique to public art. “Murals usually have a fair amount of community support,” Haskins explains. “People live with them, people identify with them.” They also band together to save them.
When I first spoke with Haskins, he was on the road—as he often is—driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas, where, at the request of the city, he was inspecting an at-risk mural. “Vegas is a harsh environment, as you might expect. A wall, in the summertime, can reach 200 degrees, and this one was just getting blasted to smithereens with light and all the rest of it,” he explains. On site, Haskins investigated the durability of the mural’s surface, how much in-painting would be required to restore the painting to its original brilliance, and which materials would protect it from future damage. After, he delivered a list of next steps, along with their various price tags, to the city’s arts commissioner. “Now she has to take all those options and figure out what’s possible within the city’s budget,” explains Haskins. “If the city hadn’t heard from so many people about wanting to preserve the mural, they probably would have just let it go, but the community loves it.”