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Roaming the 'Street' Arts District

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The Downtown L.A. Arts District, one block away from Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, has been growing refuge for street art. Seen here at Joel Bloom Square (E. 3rd, Traction, and Rose) are recent murals by Dabs and Myla, How and Nosm, and JR. The street version of Mona Lisa is a 2008 piece by Thomas Burns I 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 Parts One and Two of this series on muralism in Los Angeles.


In the former warehouse district of Downtown Los Angeles, there are still a few resident artists remaining from the 1980s, those brave days when painters, sculptors, and others, with no official city code on the books, began working and living in abandoned industrial buildings.

Since then, the neighborhood has continued advocating for its own artistic ethos, and considered a community that uses warehouses--once for manufacturing goods--as studios that manufacture art. A few rallied to get make the neighborhood legal for living, and for a time, before the current renaissance, it was the center of an artistic groundswell in Downtown.

Now the Arts District has a lower profile than other art communities such as The Brewery, or Downtown's Gallery Row where the monthly art walk is centered. Still, the last decade has attracted loft developers and retail because of the area's image of creative grit. In April, architecture school SCI-Arc finalized the purchase of the century-old rail freight depot that has been home since 2001. Now, the Arts District is earmarked as one of the centerpieces for Los Angeles CleanTech Corridor.

Each of them, and others, angle their presence as the gateway that will civilize the underdeveloped region of Downtown's badlands east of the Alameda curtain.

That is one reason why the artists-in-residence are supportive of the ongoing curated street art. It raises the artistic profile of the Arts District.

The recent motion by city council seeking a way for murals to be permitted citywide will be ongoing. Early talk, when the motion was being drafted, included creating "mural" districts. Venice was considered a potential project area, but if it was picked solely, the Arts District would have made some noise to be included. After all, they have the walls to prove it, even if all are not quite legal.

Sometimes I find myself on a conceptual fence with street art defining itself as public art. They do not always reflect the neighborhood they are installed in, such as the work seen from L.A. Freewalls.

They are the work of an artist's style, a continued application of previous work that would not change much if installed, painted, or wheat-pasted anywhere in the city, or the world.

There is no sense that this art understands the experience of the neighborhood that it is being displayed.

But many of the residents favor the current crop of work for raising the neighborhood's artistic profile, no matter what it takes. The images of the large scale wheatpaste may have nothing to do with the those living in the community, but the process of making a former warehouse a home, without permits, mirrors the backstory of how the Arts District made a name for itself.

LA Freewalls I Jet Set Grafitti
April, 2011: How and Nosm begin painting the east facing wall of the Neptune Building, completing a phase of street art installed in the Arts District.
 Tertia by Nomadé I Photo: Ed Fuentes
A soldier, armed with paint, stands watch as a placeholder on 4th Place, just east of Alameda. "Tertia," by street artist Nomadé, will be replaced by a larger piece to be installed later, says LA Freewalls' Daniel Lahoda: "The [building] owner wanted something so bad, they put this there until they can get out to make a proper mural for him.
 Safest Show I Photo by Ed Fuentes
Select walls in the Arts District are a community bulletin board for street artist wit. Zip Fusion owner Jason Ha allows works to be posted on his wall to support "the creative spirit" of the neighborhood.
Wrinkled Reworked I Photo by Ed Fuentes
French artist, known as JR, agreed to have one of his Arts District-based wheat pastes become a collaboration with David Flores. The reworked piece, part of his "Wrinkles of the City" series, is on 4th Place near Merrick and Molina.
Dog Park Wall I Ed Fuentes
True to the nature of the neighborhood, dog owners use a Downtown Arts District Dog Park wall to write notes to other pets owners--or their pets. Only the provided chalk is allowed to scrawl messages.
Roa I Photo Courtesy of Jet Set Graffiti
In the Arts District southside, Congresswoman Roybal-Allard stops at Roa's "Warbling Vireo" during an early June tour with Daniel Lahoda.
Shepard Fairey Mural I Ed Fuentes
Greg Robledo works with a plumbing company at Molina and 4th, and connected the owner of the business with LA Freewalls. They now have "MO[U]RNING IN AMERICA, an installation by Shepard Fairey. "People are coming from places, like San Francisco, just to take a photo of the mural," says Robello.
Fairey at sunset I Ed Fuentes
Shepard Fairey's "Peace Goddess" was the backdrop for the Wurstküche roof-turned-balcony during a 2010 street concert. Fairey's wheat paste was the first installation by LA Freewalls. Later that year, it was tagged by a street artist appearing in a nearby gallery. The neighborhood was in an uproar, and the wheat paste was repaired.

More street art commentary from Departures:

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Twitter: @KCETdepartures
Facebook: KCETdepartures

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