Sacred Streets: Skid Row as an Art Source

Steve by Jason Leigh I Photo by LyDowntown Los Angeles has always had a conflicted personality. The border -- a statement of economic value dividing urgent nomadic residency -- has shifted. In many ways it makes Skid Row even more concentrated than a decade ago, when at night it extended out to Pershing Square.

Artists have often used Skid Row as source material, using the theme that the status of its residents doesn't change; they are easily forgotten.

"Sacred Streets" seeks to remind us of them in a temporary outdoor installation that features twelve portraits of the homeless, as created by artist Jason Leith, "It's all about bringing beauty and dignity to Skid Row through art," said the artist in a video introduction on Kickstarter. "Sacred Streets" made its debut during the May 2013 Downtown Art Walk.

While arrangements for a one-night shuttle from a local parking lot were made for opening night, walking to it from Gallery Row is a planned commitment, which "Writing on the Wall" contributor Helen Ly offered to do. She made her way through Skid Row, an environment that can be intimidating for someone new to area, said Ly, who has been a downtown resident for just over five years. While walking to the installation creates a prelude for the people living in Skid Row, it's also a way for someone who doesn't look like they are a part of the neighborhood to be the observed. "I was being watched," said Ly.

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Arriving during the opening minutes of the installation's 6 p.m. start, the materials that were once discarded, then collected and used for the portraits, were still being hung up inside the reclaimed structure that houses the exhibition.

Portraits become ghosts on reclaimed materials, as seen in the photos by Ly, making the sculptures an abstraction of people embedded, even trapped, within the street environs. Both deconstructed lives and abandoned materials that call Skid Row home are a vital storyline for the artist. "The discarded items become part of a person's identity," observed Ly.

Saul by Jason Leith I Photo by Helen LyIn "Saul," a man's portrait is encased inside an abandoned suitcase with accompanying text describing the man. It is also a document. Every time Leith met Saul, he would be dragging two large suitcases with him. As with many in Skid Row, a suitcase holds all the possessions a person values, and as iconic an image as a shopping cart re-purposed as mobile storage. Now the suitcase has more resonance with tourists and guests pulling their belongings in the nearby Historic Core -- a symbol of walking tourism.

With the words "Revelation to St. John, 95 AD" carved into a step, spirituality carries religious undertones at the entry way to the installation. "I felt the exhibition permeated a much grander message that all religions could relate to," notes Ly. "That is all things, including discarded objects, have a purpose and place."

Revelation on Skid Row, opening night of Sacred Streets I Photo by Helen Ly

"Sacred Streets" is the latest way in which an artist has contributed works to remind people of Skid Row, which has longer history than any of the downtown Districts. And before the city's core became known for its development and nightlife -- now added with the revitalizing directive of Bringing Back Broadway, parklets on Spring Street, and the plans for a streetcar system in downtown -- murals and public art offered similar messages as seen in "Sacred Streets." That includes SPARC's "What I See Can Be Me" at Fifth and Crocker, next to "A Rain Drop Falls From My Lips," a 1993 mural by Yreina Cervantez.

RETNA's collaboration with Estevan Oriol and The Jonah Project at Sixth and Crocker was also a powerful reminder of the people of Skid Row. A recent piece by RISK, also themed as a Skid Row art project, was designed to bring attention to a spirit of hope. What is telling is that those works, and others, are sometimes just called "Skid Row Mural," preceded by the artists name. That makes those works a resident, not a temporary visitor.

Much can be written about that difference. Works that hope to be permanent, versus a temporary installation, can be a symbol of long- versus short-term healing. But for now the message between the two forms is simple and shared. People who live in Skid Row, and the art that responds to them, exist.

Jason Leith's "Sacred Streets" runs through May 14, 2013. 528 San Julian Street.

Dawn by Jason Leith I Photo by Helen Ly

Mingling before the show, Sacred Streets I Photo by Helen Ly

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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