Santa Barbara

The Legal Street Art of Santa Barbara


Santa Barbara has a certain reputation in the outside world and, generally speaking, it doesn't include graffiti. The sunny seaside hamlet is known better for its red-tiled roofs, a Mediterranean-esque climate, and copious doses of well-groomed opulence than it is for, say, street art. However, take a walk along the first block of East Mason Street and there, just a stone's throw away from the Pacific Ocean and the hustle and bustle of SB's primary tourist drag, you will find a whole block worth of perfectly legal and perfectly sublime murals blasted up along the exterior walls of a t-shirt shop. Three dimensional skulls with tongues that become waves and giant abstract sunflowers hang out beside realism renderings of dolphins and politically motivated Occupy Movement propaganda in this entirely unexpected open-air art museum.

Officially, the project is known as A.M.A.S.S (Artists Making a Street Scene) and it has been bringing a bit of edge and creative culture to SB's most distinctly tourist-serving part of town since the summer of 2009. It was then, when local art scene maven Laura Inks happened to open up a small gallery/store space with her boyfriend across the street from the aforementioned t-shirt building. At that time, the building was vacant and slated for demolition as part of a highfalutin development plan that aimed to build a luxury hotel and condos in the neighborhood. To hear Inks tell it, the long rectangular shoe box of a structure was an eye sore of sorts with most of its windows broken out, below average tagging dotting the stucco walls, and trash and busted glass scattered about. "I remember just looking at and thinking, 'Gee, I wish somebody would clean that up.'" recalled Inks recently. Turns out, after a tanking national economy helped implode the 1% development dreams for the space -- at least for the time being-- Inks, with a little help from friends, would become the very savior she was looking for.

A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

An accomplished artist in her own right, Inks had already been running something she loosely called "The Graffiti Project," an after-school and weekend painting class for at-risk youth. Through that experience, she had had her eyes opened to the appeal that art on less than traditional- and often illegal- canvases held for many young aspiring painters. "I would meet these kids and you could tell that they had talent but when I asked to see some of their finished pieces so that maybe we could put them in a show they would say, 'Well, it is kind of out on buildings around town.'" Unable, for obvious reasons, to show off such types of work in a traditional art show, Inks started having her students bust out with their spray cans on large plywood panels, a solution that allowed for large format paintings that could be shown both indoors and out as well as transported.

A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

And so, it was with this mindset, that she was able to help replace the blight on East Mason Street with something that attracts scores of happy on-lookers essentially everyday of the week. "It literally took me almost a year to find the right guy and talk him into it, but eventually I convinced the people who owned the building to let me get some artists to put something up." Inks explains about A.M.A.S.S's origin story. At first, three murals were painted as a test run, done on plywood and placed in front of a few of the aforementioned broken windows. Almost immediately, says Inks, the property owner was stoked and gave the thumbs up for the project to grow to its current size with some 18 mural spaces, the bulk of them large, roughly 12' by 7' plywood panels installed in window openings along with a couple doorways and the odd right-on-the-stucco rendering. "I was always telling kids, 'Make a resume, not a rap sheet.' You know, teach them that, if they ask permission first, they can have outdoor art and get it to stay up for a while. So I guess I just followed my own advice."

A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

In the years since, following what Inks calls an "organic and self-regenerating" process, A.M.A.S.S has had more than 100 artists come along and put up their work along the walls of East Mason. Basically, Inks keeps a running list of interested artists and, after that list reaches a critical mass -- roughly every three or four months -- the currently showing artists are asked to come and take down their plywood canvases and replace them with new blank ones. Then, in a collaboration with folks like Stateside Magazine's Adam Grey -- he is also the one responsible for the projects catchy acronym friendly name -- Inks and company throw a block party where the new artists are invited out to paint and celebrate for a day and put up the new round of murals. "It always a pretty inspiring time," Inks says, "Everybody knows that it all could end at any moment[the building is, once again, slated for demolition and future development into a hotel of sorts by a new team of LA-based ownership] so we make the most of it while we can." Then, after a reflective pause, she adds almost defiantly, "The support for this and interest from the community has been great. Literally, I have no out of pocket expenses. People just love it."

A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

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Top Image: A.M.A.S.S Street Art | Photo Courtesy of Ethan Stewart.

About the Author

Born and raised on Cape Cod, Ethan Stewart has been calling Santa Barbara home off and on since that great El Nino winter of 1998. On his way to writing the news for The Independent, Stewart has worked as a bellhop, a carpenter, a...
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