Los Angeles

Pop-Life: Why Melrose Avenue is a Mecca for Graffiti Writers

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By Chie Davis

Nachos soaked in thick, salty cheese, primed for the late night, were ready to be grabbed. Steam escaped from the taco trucks that lined the block, enclosing the action like a barricade. Clouds of Nag Champa incense serenely bowed to the bitter scent of Krylon spray paint, crawling from the electric mural until it enveloped spectators in a foggy haze. As the pristine, laced-up sneakers glided along the concrete canvas, a photographer perched nearby to capture photos. The artist smiled, motioning to the ground. The photographer quietly grinned, acknowledging the code. Pictures taken of a muralist should be captured from the jeans down. Exposing the identity of a street artist in the media could have fatal consequences, particularly if they're a member of the covert graffiti crews that infiltrate the underground. Street crews are responsible for some of the un-commissioned and therefore illegal murals on Melrose in Los Angeles. While these artists were commissioned for the night, some of the same people art bomb un-commissioned spaces. Spectators huddled in corners to watch the live art unfold at the FAME Festival.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Peppered with jewelers, crafters and emerging artists showcasing and selling their work, the monthly FAME Fest pop-up event occupies two spaces. Artists whose pieces sell for an upwards of $5000 are given space inside of the spiritually themed Ethos Gallery on the strip. Painters and crafters with work starting at $100 set-up shop in the adjacent parking lot facing Fairfax High School. Fairfax is home to the district's only public visual arts magnet program. The venue is also situated near the legendary Canter's Deli, one of oldest 24/7 restaurants and Hollywood hangout in California. Part of "Melrose Nights," a periodic retail event, FAME Fest creator Eddie Donaldson says that the temporary arts festival plays a viable role in the area's social revitalization. While historical L.A. landmarks remain the same, the surrounding culture that showcases, sells and processes art is rapidly changing. "They're all emerging artists, so the energy is high and the stakes even higher, because most of the people here are putting everything they have into what they do. They paint live while they're here. They create art on the spot. It's more of a for yourself and by yourself situation, versus an edited show by a gallery owner that picks what they want to see the best. The public gets to take it raw -- directly from the artist," he explains.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Live painting at FAME Festival.

Providing a temporary space for an interactive show has shifted the notion of the traditional, buttoned-up artist. An ocular feast, FAME Fest bridges a collection of trained, fine artists with self-taught street muralists and crews. This is an organic fusion for Donaldson, a hip 40 something year-old curator, who has been active in both worlds for over 20 years. "They're actually finding us, as opposed to us finding them. We don't really go through a judging process. That's the whole point of it. For the most part we have more artists than we know how to deal with. Art is so accessible now. It's not like before where you had to go through a lot to get noticed."

Donaldson acknowledges that the commercialization of street art has a lot to do with the artist influx. Graffiti artists, taggers and muralists- who law enforcers denounce as a motely crew of vandals are shrouded with respect and crowned as art commissioners on Melrose, whose back alleyways have long been adorned with aerosol paint. "In 1986, there was a shop owned by one of the original L.A. graffiti artists named Hex. He had a store called 'Hip-Hop Shop' and he painted the front of (rare sneaker haven) Sportie L.A. The mural is still there and has been since '86," reminisces Donaldson. 'Sticky Rick,' the owner of a Boyle Heights company that produces stickers for many local street artists, set up a booth outside. Pre-existing graffiti crews from the 1980's currently saturate Melrose's high art scene and the still relatively underground culture, he reveals. "CBS--these guys basically own the galleries of Melrose. In the alleys you go through and see some of the most beautiful graffiti. It's all been done by CBS-the "Can't be Stopped" crew. While still covert at the core, operating under multiple aliases and moving in secrecy when tagging public property during odd hours, these same bands now own galleries and are being handpicked for commercial work. Donaldson explains, "TCF who was around in '87 have grown into a bigger crew, which is huge now. You go to Brooklyn Projects and they're up there a lot. The walls are controlled by property owners or store owners. Graffiti artists either get permission, or don't, but certain artists don't go over different ones because they respect the level of work. Established crews like MTA, MSK, CBS-people aren't going to go over that because there's a certain politics to it all." While turf wars amongst crews are still prevalent, the acceptance of street art on a mainstream level has quelled the level of physical violence traditionally associated with creative gangs battling for wall space and notoriety.

Photo: Chie Davis.


Distinguishable by style, as opposed to ethnicity or neighborhood, today's emerging graffiti crews bank on the dangling possibility of commercial success attained by Melrose bombers turned marketable heroes like Shepard Fairey and Banksy. "I have 13 year old kids at my gallery right now who have been spray painting for two months, so it's really cluttered. It's not easier with the commercialization of street art. To me, it makes it much more difficult to be noticed," admits Donaldson. While his come one--come all approach with the festival is not meant to discourage or encourage one's rise to fame, the gritty street meets wine and cheese art experience has attracted a respectable and consistent following.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Samaire Armstrong, a Los Angeles based actress and painter whose pieces are inspired by Japanese anime, enjoys the stylistic mesh of the two art worlds. "It's a different crowd. They're more eclectic and spur of the moment, like a Facebook blast, Twitter crowd. It's a real community. Its fun--you don't feel pressure, like what am I going to wear to the event? It's just you go and see the art. Some of the pieces are made that day, or while we're doing it." Both Armstrong and Danny Minnick, a pro-skateboarder and abstract painter reminiscent of Willem de Kooning, earn a living from popping up at FAME Fest and other flash shows. "Fred Durst (Limp Bizkit) bought a painting last time," Minnick says. "But for me it's about the work more than the money. It's good to be in an event like this; see all of the other artists and to be part of a culture of artists on Melrose."

Whether their work is hung from the wall of a cozy gallery, molded by the fresh anticipation of a live crowd or inked in secrecy, the historic Fairfax district has reaffirmed its position as a pliable artistic hub and feeding ground. Sitting at the helm, FAME Fest is content with being one of the fire-starters on the avenue.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Photo: Chie Davis.

Street art at FAME Fest.

Street Art | Photo by Chie Davis.


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Top Image: Photo by Chie Davis.

About the Author

Chie Davis is a multimedia journalist who began producing international news segments for CBS Newspath. She moved to traffic reporting for Cablevision’s Metro Traffic & Weather and also covered local news at WZBN-TV in New Jersey....
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