"Man, the news blew up," said Man One after his online announcement revealed that he would be closing his Crewest Gallery on December 31, after ten years of showcasing graffiti as an art form. It was a surprise decision to many, but it had come after a slow business year and new projects that often took the Los Angeles artist out of the country.
Since he's embedded in graffiti culture, a form that has artists develop while keeping an eye on an escape route, Man One knows an exit is all about good timing.
At the beginning of the year, he was determined to stay open for "Mission: Accomplished," the gallery's April exhibition that marked a decade of elevating the status of graffiti as art. "I wanted to stay open for that show. It was a way to make a statement," said Man One. Then chuckling he added, "After that, it was month-to-month."
Thoughts about closing Crewest really began when Man One was being his alter-ego: Alex Poli, husband and soccer dad. During an out-of-town tournament that his daughter was playing in, he was thinking like a father -- about running a business jolted by slow economics, and working extra to keep the doors open. A graffiti artist aficionado had heard Man One was in his town and asked him to look at a wall in his new condo. The artist met with the owner and was offered the commission. Man One went back a few weeks later to complete the interior mural, another of many assignments he took on to help with gallery overhead.
"It opened my eyes to what's out there," said Man One, who has watched artists he introduced become well known and their work rise in value. "I felt like I helped build my market, and I wasn't making it. But really, I just want to get back to painting."
The final trigger to close the doors to Crewest came when an agreement was made with the building owner to prematurely end the lease, which was to continue until December 2014.
After Crewest Gallery began in Alhambra just over a decade ago, it became an anchor in downtown Los Angeles Gallery Row as soon as it opened there in 2006. At times the shows spilled out on Winston Street, right off Main, and became an outdoor living gallery as artists did live painting.
Crewest advanced the idea of exhibiting graffiti as an exclusive subject, and used revolving monthly shows to help establish graffiti as a legitimate art movement. It shifted the perception of Los Angeles graffiti and street art as an inner-city grassroots expression of high-risk youth -- now graffiti is a visual marker of an urban demographic.
Just as important to graffiti and the mural world has been Man One's soccer-like business footwork, making him a nimble advocate. There were times when Man One was stuck in terse negotiations with civic graffiti opponents, and at the same time was agreeing into solid partnerships with movie studios wanting to sponsor live art demonstrations.
Getting graffiti art and murals out from a stigma has been a long-time mission for Man One; it began before Crewest Gallery was even founded. Out of the ashes of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, galleries were opened to show how graffiti was a form of art that could galvanize a larger community. Beginning with projects like ICU Art, led by Stash Maleski, pop-up galleries sought ways to stay open and hold shows that sometimes doubled as parties, only to see them close within a few years. "We rocked it until the lights went off and the eviction notices came in," said Maleski, who adds that he produced Man One's first solo show back in 1994.
Man One is now scouting for a space somewhere in downtown Los Angeles to form Man One Studio, a working environment to do personal work, a place to have appointments with his client base. It will also allow him to keep a presence so he can work on other developing projects, such as a series of murals for Skid Row that can happen as soon as the mural ordinance is passed.
The mural ordinance has to pass for the project to move forward, reasons Man One. There have been too many cases of his murals painted out because they are still seen as vandalism, even when permission by the owner is secured. This past August, Man One and Vyal painted a wall on the corner of Los Angeles and Winston, only to have a renegade clean up crew paint it out. (The crew left behind tattered commercial banners and did not go past the length of their arm). This came about just after Man One was recognized by the City of Los Angeles for his contributions of showcasing local and international artists, and before he embarked on another working tour in Europe.
Though it was not planned as the final exhibition, "LA Enhanced: An iPhoneography," is a collection of iPhone photography, including images from photographer/filmmaker Willie T, photographer Yuri Hasegawa, skateboarders Arto Saari and Atiba Jefferson, and Man One himself. Crewest will end its days on Winston with one more reception on December 29 with live music and live art, and will attempt to move the last pieces of art and book inventory. The exhibition ends December 30, and Man One will lock the doors to Crewest on December 31.
That's not to say December's Art Walk was the last one for Man One, especially if he finds a new personal working studio somewhere Downtown. "There's always a chance for a pop-art gallery during Art Walk."
"We will still have a gallery space online," Man One adds, who is also planning to take the idealism of his gallery on tour -- a global pop-up gallery, so to speak. "The first is a UK tour in August," he said. "Five artists and myself will do exhibits and walls, and hold youth workshops." Plans are also being made for stops in Bristol and a gallery in Ireland, which is scheduled to feature his work.
Man One hints that there are also other large projects with artists that he will only call big new ventures. "That's what I do," said Man One. "Crewest is named after the idea of working with a crew of people, and I can do that anywhere."
110 Winston Street
Downtown Los Angeles
Founded by Man One, aka Alex Poli, and Harry William Reynolds.
Below: Man One working on his entry in The Reindeer Project.