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Los Angeles Graffiti and the NYC Connection

NYC History

Matt, thrilled to have landed on the West Coast in search of graffiti

Ah Los Angeles, Land of sunshine, land of prosperity. Land of amazing tacos and pretty damn good Korean rice bowls. Land of . .  graffiti? And sky -high murals!? Waitasec – doesn’t NYC have the lock-down on urban street art and inner-city creative expression masquerading as destruction? Isn’t SoCal just a haven for surfer boys and Hollywood girls? Not according to the Museum of Contemporary Art and their blockbuster exhibit Art in the Streets, the most comprehensive exhibit ever assembled. Art in the Streets takes a historical perspective on street art and graffiti, from its invention in Philadelphia in 1964 to the international modern masters of the craft. And as NYC’s premier Graffiti Tour Guide, I flew out there last week to check it out!

JR’s Wrinkles of the City on MoCA’s loading doors.

First off, the Museum itself is slathered in art, from pasteups by JR to a real steamroller killing a fake Yogi Bear by Banksy.  The inside of the huge, 40,000 square foot former police car factory is divided, (intentionally?) into the past vs. the present/future. The past includes a timeline of graffiti from Philly to NYC to Detroit to LA to Paris to Barcelona to Argentina to the world. The present/future of the place is stuffed with phenomenal exhibits, where each room is dedicated to one street-art superstar or crew. Swoon has a whimsical, fairy-like tented installation. Shepard Fairey has framed OBEY Giants and a manifesto. Neckface has a creepy, fake derelict LA alleyway, complete with drunk bum in the corner. The reclusive (and recently deceased) Rammellzee has an installation that is a recreation of his LES apartment, awash in blacklight. The exhibit was phenomenal and although I spent 5 hours total there, I could’ve spent 5x that.

The exhibit and its requisite hot-button issue is topical news, because for the past month, the Brooklyn Museum had planned on hosting the Art in the Streets for its second incarnation & East Coast premier, but as of yesterday they cancelled the show, citing financial difficulty in re-producing the show. Of course, the LA exhibit itself has garnered international acclaim as well as vocal concern, in that glorifying graffiti in a museum settling leads to more graffiti, which could be equated with vandalism. Its the age-old question that Mayor Koch grappled with in NY’s dark days (but golden era, graffiti-wise) in the 1980s – is it art? Or is it destruction?

El Mac, Retna, and an LA Local pushing his wares

An interesting position on the topic comes from Dan Lahoda, the man responsible for creating some of the most extraordinary legal murals in LA today, through his project LA Free Walls. I had the exceptional experience of letting Dan drive me around most of Los Angeles on two different private tours over two days, seeing some incredible art murals, both historic and modern.

Mural Wall Arts District

Over the past few years Dan has connected international street artists with factory owners in the enormous, scattered industrial districts of LA. These owners are more than thrilled in allowing the artists to beautify their facades with whimsical, peculiar, bizarre, slightly menacing street art, be it spraypaint, pasteups, brushwork, or stencils. In creating these spectacular street art spectacles, it helps to ferment a creative, artistic bohemian atmosphere throughout formerly derelict neighborhoods, which in turn brings up the value of the real estate and the safety of the community.

Dabs & Myla on the left, How/Nosm on the right

We saw the People’s History of Los Angeles, the half-mile long mural from SPARC – the Social Public Art resource Center. We saw some El Mac and Retna. Dabs & Myla, an Australian couple made some marvelous murals alongside How & Nosm, twins born in Germany but live in Brooklyn. And we saw the ever-present, ghostly, magnificent JR’s pastes throughout the city. Many many more pictures are on our Facebook page.

The LA Free Walls artwork was too expansive and detailed to convey in this brief post. The MOCA exhibit was glorious, but it was just that – a museum exhibit. Constrained by walls and costing admission fees, it’ll never escape its four walls and a roof definition. Art in the Streets should make people think about where art belongs and how if affects changes in society. IT BELONGS IN THE STREETS, and its a damn shame that the Brooklyn Museum wont find a way to make it happen. Until then, I’ll keep leading Graffiti tours of Brooklyn and NY, and talking about where art belongs.

By Matt Levy.

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