The Tale of Two Murals in Downtown L.A.

Shepard Fairey and RISK murals in downtown Los Angeles. February, 2014. Photo: Ed Fuentes | viewfromaloft

G. James Daichendt, aka Professor Street Art, has some thoughts on those new murals appearing in downtown's Skid Row. Daichendt is the author of the new book "Shepard Fairey Inc. Artist/Professional/Vandal" and "Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art" and a guest editorial regular here at KCET Departures, via Writing on the Wall. He is a Professor and Associate Dean at Azusa Pacific University in southern California.

by G. James Daichendt

Giants of the graffiti and street art world descended upon Skid Row in Los Angeles to paint two large murals this past February. RISK, born Kelly Gravel, is an international star in the world of graffiti. Pioneering the limits of illegal and legal work, he founded a clothing company and his work is a mainstay in urban centers. Shepard Fairey, aka OBEY, is arguably one of the most influential artists in the world. His design company, clothing line, and infamous portrait of Barack Obama made him a household name. Combined they are match in lowbrow heaven as they set their sights on two walls of the Rossmore Hotel on the corner of East Sixth Street and Ceres Avenues.

The artists collaborated to produce some very colorful and notable contributions to the neighborhood. RISK painted the background of each image in an abstract drip style that he has manufactured quite well. The cool green and blue colors juxtapose the warm tones on opposing sides. Fairey then painted the foreground using a stencil that features a number of his reoccurring motifs, like the peace sign and his stylized Andre the Giant face. The words "justice tonight," "good times," and "bad times" are all featured prominently and reference the unstable conditions in Skid Row. The project is admirable for its scale and certainly better than a blank wall. The murals are intended to beautify the neighborhood and the design and execution are quite good. It's certainly a win for the community in my book, and I enjoyed looking at them.

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However, the names RISK and OBEY are featured more prominently than the message. It's quite clear by their sheer size and placement in the center that the art on display has little critical engagement beyond beatification and a living memorial to these names. If you forget who the artists are, it does not take long to jog your memory.

Skid Row City Limit  I Photo: General Jeff
Skid Row City Limit I Photo: General Jeff

As a scholar who studies street art, I am encouraged when street art takes a political stance and can provoke dialogue. The power of the anonymous artist whose message is more important than their identity is admirable. Shepard Fairey is noted for being a lighting rod for debate, and it's a trait I find admirable. However, both of these rebel artists would probably agree with me that a much more subversive and impactful piece of street art was installed within a few days on a much more modest budget, that is ripe for comparison.

Down the street on Sixth and San Julian in the heart of Skid Row, a piece of street art popped up. It's a replica of an official city sign that reads, "Skid Row City Limit," with the sub-text, "Population: Too Many." It's not necessarily an aesthetically beautiful mural, and the names of the artists are practically invisible, with a small group of signatures placed below the sign: Issues & Solutions, General Jeff, WDS, Chris Como, Wild Life, Azure, and Tre. The purpose of the street work is more about critiquing one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States, rather than brightening the moral conditions that the city refuses to address. It's a commendable trait since it does not point back at the artists who created it.

The three most powerful aspects of street art is 1) the ability to recognize it as art outside the gallery or museum, 2) the power of context specific messages, and 3) the immediacy of its impact. Recognizing it as art is a reversal of so much of the conceptual work that has dominated contemporary art since the 1960s. The power of context moves street art beyond graffiti, and acknowledges the importance of location and its relationship to the message provoked. The immediacy is critical since the audience is on the move and it must be cognized in an instance.

While the RISK and Shepard Fairey murals certainly entertain and bring two popular artists to the city through recognizable symbols and aesthetics, the artists involved in the Skid Row City Limits sign embrace all three categories, and will likely leave a much stronger impact for action and change. It's a work of art that acknowledges its location and is prodding you to join them.

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