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Scratching the Surface: Street Art Stars on Museum Walls

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"Scratch" opening event at ESMoA | Image courtesy of ESMoA/GRI.

ESMoA is easy to miss. It's a slim space crammed into the side of Main Street along with just about every other commercial and civic structure that exists in El Segundo. Bike riders zip like streaks of neon right past it. Drivers may not even know it's there. ESMoA is a hidden treasure of the South Bay's beach cities, a free "art laboratory," not a museum, that hosts "experiences," not exhibitions, quite unlike what you might see in larger homes to the visual arts. Right now, ESMoA, in connection with the Getty Research Institute, is in the midst of "Scratch," a juxtaposition of street art and rare books.

The inspiration for the project is kept under glass in the center of the gallery. Called "Liber Amicorum," it was a keepsake for a Nuremberg merchant named Johann Heinrich Gruber. It's comparable in size to the autograph books that children once had friends sign on the last day of school. Created between 1602 and 1612, it's filled with drawings and watercolors from high-powered friends, including a few pieces made on marbled paper from Turkey. The names of the artists represented in here are not famous. They were, oftentimes, hired by various aristocrats to leave a nice piece in their friend's book. David Brafman, Associate Curator of Rare Books for GRI, says it was a bit of a trend back in the 16th and 17th centuries. "It was like Facebook," he says by phone. "What you had were very splashy visuals mementos of your network of influential friends. The artist generally didn't get named, it was the aristocrat or academic or intellectual."

This mural includes work by Alex "Defer" Kizu, Big Sleeps, Cryptik, Gajin Fujita, Jose "Prime" Reza, Kopey, Patrick Martinez and Saber. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
This mural includes work by Alex "Defer" Kizu, Big Sleeps, Cryptik, Gajin Fujita, Jose "Prime" Reza, Kopey, Patrick Martinez and Saber. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

When art collector Ed Sweeney approached GRI about creating a book of street artists' work, Brafman showed him this, in addition to rare toms on calligraphy, art, visual symbolism and other related topics. Liber Amicorum, or "Book of Friends," resembled the black books that graffiti artists carry. Artists might leave their tags in friends' books, the same way that aristocrats hit the Book of Friends' pages with a coat of arms. A previous Artbound story details the effort, L.A. Liber Amicorum, which features 143 works of art by an eclectic mix of folks who have brought their stunning pieces to the streets of Los Angeles. The book itself is on display inside ESMoA. It's under glass, but, like the other rare items here, guests can use iPads to flip through the pages.

ESMoA Scratch (Getty Black Book) Exhibit Preview

For "Scratch," though, the books are just one part of the experience. Every bit of the gallery walls, as well as most of the floor, is covered with paint. Six artists were selected as co-curators for the experience. Each of the artists put together crews to help transform this small space into a massive mural-making project. Overall, 57 artists spent two weeks in and out of the venue as they worked on eight giant pieces.

Holly Crawford, an Education Specialist at ESMoA, is my guide for the tour. "For some of the artists, it was the first time that they were working together," she says. "They're people that know each other. They know their styles. To come together and create these murals, it's a very unique event."

Crawford calls this a "cathedral to graffiti." A mix of styles butt up against each other as mural meets mural. Pieces extend onto the floor. At ESMoA, decorating the floor is part of creating an experience. For this show, they were just going to keep it covered, but the team liked the work so much that the artists spent the last 48 hours of prep time taking their work to the ground. A crew led by Axis made their section actually look like a sidewalk, with cigarette butts and even a dollar bill fixed to the floor. There's a small reading section in the gallery as well, with books on street art piled up on a small table. The table and two chairs are all tagged now. There's a "tag wall" as well, where the artist were able to leave their names. It's sort of like a large page of credits.

This mural features work from Eyeone, Gorgs, Kozem, Swank, Tanner and Tempt
This mural features work from Eyeone, Gorgs, Kozem, Swank, Tanner and Tempt
This mural features work from Eric "Cre8" Walker, AiseBorn, Enkone, Earn One, Demer One, Design 9, Her,t Keo One, Mark 7, Nuke, Pyer, Raymond "Gramps" Green, Roder 169, Sano, Wram One. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
This mural features work from Eric "Cre8" Walker, AiseBorn, Enkone, Earn One, Demer One, Design 9, Her,t Keo One, Mark 7, Nuke, Pyer, Raymond "Gramps" Green, Roder 169, Sano, Wram One. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

The diversity of the works is stunning. Fishe led a team to create colorful layers of designs and tags that appear like peeling paper. Alex "Defer" Kizu's crew mixed cultural references. A bold image of a samurai appears in one corner, a palm tree engulfed in flames turns up in another. Defer's own contribution, exquisite gold and silver curves, peeks out from a top corner. "It kind of looks like an extension of the samurai sword, almost," says Crawford. Eyeone and friends paid tribute to Tempt, the artist who was paralyzed from ALS and whose story is the subject of the documentary "Get Up: The Tempt One Story." They painted the artist in his youth. The tag that appears is the last one Tempt left in Eyeone's black book.

Elsewhere artists merge religious iconography, tattoo art and references to the history of graffiti in bold fashion. One of the highlights is a piece helmed by Eric "Cre8" Walker and a massive crew that unites the ancient histories of Africa and the Americas. Crawford points out how the artists' names are hidden within the piece.

Chelsea Hogan, another education specialist at ESMoA, points to the connection between scripts found in the rare books and on the walls, how they aren't always easy to read or comprehend. "When you don't quite understand or connect with letters, you can still maybe see the artistic quality," she says. That's the kind of environment that ESMoA has fostered here, where the letters are as intrinsic to the visuals as the paintings.

"All of this language means something to these people who wrote on the wall and wrote on the floor," she says. Like the letters and images in the 17th century Book of Friends, it's a testament to a moment in time and memories of interactions that are all too fleeting.

Mural by PJ
Mural by PJ

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