Bending The Rules: The Arts District as a Haven For Street 'Murals'

Murals are popping up in the Arts District I Photo: Ed Fuentes

This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The series comments on cultural history and urban issues through the lens of community profiles, such as Venice and the Arts District.

Read the first piece in this murals series: New Motion Seeks To Identify L.A.'s Murals As Art, Not Signs


"Muralist are taggers," he said about an investigation on a graffiti-influenced work on a wall in downtown Los Angeles' Arts District.

Detective Mike Thibodeaux heads up a high-profile detail for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department that targets graffiti and vandalism along rail lines. He spoke to me last week about "Cream of the Crop," a recently completed piece by the Melbourne, Australia graffiti team duo, Dabs and Myla. It shares the rear wall of the Arts District based Neptune building with a separate piece by New York graffiti artists How and Nosm.

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The two crews, who have an international following, were approached by LA Freewalls, a program of outdoor installations curated by Jet Set Graffiti's Daniel Lahoda. Starting in 2009, the Arts District has become its outdoor gallery showcasing graffiti and street art influenced works.

The body of work started with a wheatpaste by Shepard Fairey and has since garnered attention from the national press. It also placed Lahoda on the radar of authorities who monitor illegal tags.

"I always get permission from the owners of the building," explained Lahoda, who posted a letter to his website protesting the Sheriff's Department inquiry about LA Freewalls, and maintains he is attempting to find a way for work to be produced.

When I asked Thibodeaux how a commercial building in L.A. city limits falls under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, he declined to comment further due "to the ongoing investigation" and needing clearance from a commanding officer. He added that he stands on his track record with similar cases. Then, perhaps hoping to soften his original statement, clarified an earlier statement: "Well, some taggers want to be muralists."

A few days after my conversation with Thibodeaux, Councilmember Jan Perry's office sent out an e-mail to Arts District stakeholders. It said they were in contact with L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina staff to "resolve the issues with the Sheriff's Department."

Perry represents the 9th district, which includes the ad hoc street art zone in the Arts District, an officially recognized city neighborhood just east of downtown that is cited as an example of a community that supports non-traditional murals that are redefining public art. Perry is one of the city leaders seeking to find ways for murals to be produced citywide and is planning public workshops to discuss standards that will guide future ordinances in mural permitting.

IRONY IN ART

In an odd twist of politics, programs like LA Freewalls, numerous galleries featuring street art, and MOCA's "Art in the Streets" exhibit, underground art has become far more visible than murals, which while traditionally depicting a neighborhood's story, threw a past L.A. into the spotlight as the country's mural capitol.

Now traditional muralism, which is often used in other major cities to deter graffiti and tagging, has been forced out of public view in Los Angeles. Such is the case at the neighborhood city hall, at Central and East 43rd, where two indoor murals by Noni Olabisi and Alma Lopez reflect African American and Latinos in South Los Angeles. Over at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall near downtown, three murals by Kent Twitchell, commissioned by L.A. County, can be found. And soon, a wall inside the LAPD's Hollenbeck station is slated for a future mural.

In each of these cases, the mural is legal since it's not viewable by the public from the street, thus not falling under the city's mural restrictions. Public art--that can't be public under current ordinances--is being out-produced by street art that has earned national attention, deemed a nuisance by law enforcement, and in the case of the Arts District, has the support of the neighborhood.

LA Freewalls has written support by the Los Angeles Artists & Business Association and the Arts District Business Improvement District. "We encourage all forms of art," said Jonathan Jerald, a long-time neighborhood advocate and board member of LARABA. He added that it is not up to the neighborhood to define a style, but to ensure innovative creativity has a home in the Arts District.

"I see them (the murals) as a defining identity," noted Estela Lopez, Executive Director of Central City East Association, which oversees the Arts District BID. "Where else can you see such a collection of extraordinary art? In my mind, they should stay, making the Arts District a sanctuary for like-minded people."

Many who are attracted to the neighborhood agree street art fits the neighborhood.

"The work is quite beautiful and carefully curated so as not to be considered a detriment to the community. In a community full of artists and other creatives, the residents are bound to be attracted to a little gentle subversion like street art . . . it's like living in a seven-block museum," said Beth Topping, a new Arts District resident who works at KCRW. "Some folks will look at street art as graffiti, but I think you have to consider your audience."

The Arts District's roots began when artists squatted in abandoned warehouses during the 80s. For more than a decade, street art and graffiti-style work has been part of the Arts District landscape, including buildings with walls that are in constant change with works from artists like Mark Machado, who goes by Mister Cartoon, and who is featured in MOCA'S "Art in the Streets."

"In a neighborhood like the Arts District or Venice, it's welcomed by the majority of residents--they consider it a beautiful part of an urban landscape," Topping added. "However, I don't think Santa Monica would appreciate a Mister Cartoon mural on Montana Avenue. It's just a completely different ball game over there. And that's why I don't live there."

PUSHING FORWARD

There's still much work to be done. If you think trying to understand the roles of multiple city departments with a variety of goals--say, Cultural Affairs encouraging art and the LAPD enforcing graffiti--with the added layer of county bureaucracy, wait to you get a room full of muralists trying to define their art.

They bring styles that will include traditional storytelling murals, majestic images without a social message, wheat-paste that nips at authority, street art with wit, graffiti with detailed illustrations or abstract type. The question of what is a public fine art mural becomes as difficult as the hackneyed, "What is Art?"

"Change is needed," says Lahoda, who will continue seeking support that street art is included in the mural-is-public art discussion. "And that is what we are trying to do."

More street art commentary from Departures:

Twitter: @KCETdepartures
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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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