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The Growing Buzz of Street Art Biz

Never mind restoring a Los Angeles art aesthetic. Downtown seems determined to be "The Mural Economic Capital Of The World."

After its underground beginnings during 1970s New York, the last decade has seen street art become a close working partner with entrepreneurship. In many cases that includes murals. It's a delicate balance of commentary and business fueled by pop-art populism.

First, one has to admit that ethnic-based murals sometimes keeps its distance, since most of that authorship prefer to voice the underserved. Street art, on the other hand, is about city residency and experience -- or at least visitation rights by suburbanites -- without needing an exclusive tie to ethnicity.

That broader appeal works on several levels. When it borders on the fringe of fine art in urban public space, an urgent primal coded message is found on dinged abandoned blocks, passing on a secret to those looking for it. When it's placed on a large wall, it's pointed out as public art, and in Los Angeles, part of a larger legacy.

When street art killer bees pollinate the street art movement by blogging and tweeting out global images, it creates a demand, as seen in April around downtown Los Angeles.

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During Art Walk, Brit Week opened at Farmer's And Merchant's Bank to bring awareness to creativity and innovation between Britain and the U.S. This lead-in to this Summer's Olympic Games in London will have the T4C Artists Competition Closing Ceremony and Art Battle LA, billed as a live competition "between four notorious names in the London and Los Angeles street and graffiti art scenes." Los Angeles' Man One and Mear One will be pitted against UK's Inkie and Eine on Thursday, April 26, at the Continental Gallery (408 S. Spring Street) to paint on recycled furniture pieces designed by Christopher Guy.

That project shows how Los Angeles packages street art as a creative import for the city.

That will also be demonstrated by LALA Gallery, which will have an inaugural exhibition, "LA Freewalls Inside," Saturday, April 21 at their new space at 1335 Willow Street. The list of participants include local and international street artists who, with LA Freewalls Project and Daniel Lahoda, invaded Los Angeles with wheat-paste based works that made the Arts District a point-of-purchase display for smaller works -- and potential course for street art as public art.

"That's what Los Angeles is known for; forming an industry of creativity," says Lahoda. "We were built on intellectual property. Now we are defining street art for cities around the world."

"If you think of graffiti writing and art in public as a war for public spaces, and the paint companies as arms dealers, this has been a multimillion dollar industry," said Estria Miyashiro, founder of the Estria Foundation, who will open the "Urban Legends" exhibition in April. "Despite [graffiti] writing being around for over 40 years, artists are only now being recognized and paid for their skills. Galleries, museums and art fairs are jumping on the bandwagon."

In a building that presents fashion as an art and a commerce -- L.A. Mart Design Center at 1933 South Broadway -- "Urban Legends" opens on April 27 to showcase 45 years of "Global Public Art." Along with featured installations from MCLA, SPARC and Graffiti of War Project, organizers say a highlight is a public auction of art pieces.

"Parallel graffiti writing's history with that of Jazz, and we are now in its 4th decade, where the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker made it big with improvisation and legitimate income off their craft," Miyashiro said.

Still, there are street art purists who are vocal about the supply selling-out through gallery appearances, museum retrospectives, merchandising inventory, and business deals with product placement. The harping doesn't slow down the trend of street artworks becoming a commodity however.

Business media coverage even have noticed street art. Forbes covered Los Angeles based 2Wenty's "Social Cigarettes" as a "clever analogy for society's dependence on Facebook, deeming it an addiction," while propelling the artist into galleries. The Economist trailed Thierry Guetta and Banksy during the 2011 Academy Award season as a sign of street art breaking down commercial barriers. 60 Minutes recent segment visited Art Basel in Miami Beach, and MOCA's Jeffrey Deitch, to find out why the art market has managed to outperform the S&P 500 index.

That delicate balancing act of straddling street and gallery is very visible in the urban core of Los Angeles, with its national media platform -- a window display in West Coast ground floor retail.

Wall Street investors may not be ready for a parade of street stock index pseudonyms, but if it's a future step for artists, they know how to make a name. As noted here before, the social commentators of our time are sharing a technique with product placement: A repetition of images shaping brand identified by a pithy name.

Anyone for SRTBIZ, CASHONE, or PROPHET?


Above: Painting by ZES one work to be featured at LALA Gallery opening exhibition "Inside LA Freewalls." Photograph by BirdmanPhoto. Below: Original sketch of Michael Jackson's Hand by muralist Kent Twitchell will included in the 'Urban Legends' Live Auction.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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