Graffiti Artists Take Their Work “Beyond the Streets” in LA
By Jillian RobertsonI spotted my first cluster of graffiti tags blocks away from the gallery, a few names rendered in oversized, colorful script. Their colorful highlights and strategically placed shadows making them to appear to popout from the wall they’d been sprayed on. The graffiti and street art, which I came to learn have different meanings, even if they’re sometimes used interchangeably, became noticeably denser as I walked up to the front gate of WerkArtz, the host to “Beyond the Streets: The Definitive Showcase of Graffiti and Street Art.”
The Beyond the Streets website warns attendees that “Graffiti materials of any sort are not permitted; no markers, spray paint, inks etc… save it for the streets.” Some attendees appear to have taken that literally. This polite, yet firm warning gets at one of the fundamental tensions in this exhibit –– rules applied to an art form that by its nature ignores all the rules.
To the Streets and Beyond
The showcase is the second in a series, described by the creators as the “dynamic follow-up to Art in the Streets, the U.S.’ first-ever graffiti and street art retrospective which broke MoCA Los Angeles’ attendance record with 220,000 visitors.” This show picks up where the first left off –– it follows the iconic graffiti and street artists who went on to create studio art, trading spray cans for canvases, moving their art from garage doors to galleries.
The inherently renegade nature of graffiti, is, just barely, contained within the walls of the space. The art spills out the doors, bleeds out of frames onto the floor, and visitors are immersed in it before they even go inside.
A full-size handball court, complete with a metal bin full of gloves and rubber balls, stands at the entrance, the wall emblazoned with a roaring lion, a recreation of the handball wall mural the artist, Lee Quinones, painted back in 1982 in New York City.
A living Gangster Garden, complete with curling vines and blooming flowers, sat next to the handball court. “Gardening is my graffiti,” explained Ron Finley, who created the installation and also plants renegade vegetable gardens throughout South Central LA. Hand-painted garden stakes, which would normally say things like “pumpkin” or “tomato” instead said “trust” and “peace,” inviting visitors to consider that community gardens in urban areas like Los Angeles, grow more than just fruit and vegetables.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Leaving the garden, I entered the gallery, which at first felt like a walk-through scrapbook, writ large, in homage to graffiti where arguably it all began, New York City. Over the years, the streets of NYC were the playground of Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and a whole host of others. A collage of rusty spent paint cans, photographs of artists hopping paint-covered trains, and the hopelessly square banner ads and billboards begging would-be taggers to essentially, “be cool man, don’t do graffiti” lined the spare white walls.
The deeper I went into the exhibit, the more the boundaries of what constitutes “street art” morphed, warped, and expanded, to include a room hidden behind a black velvet curtain full of black-light painted toys, makeshift murals of wheatpaste newsprint, and even a full scale church with pews and a tiny coffin labeled “All Dawgs Go To Heaven.”
Rounding one corner, I came across a police car, perfectly cut down the middle, all the way down to the engine, which was shiny with metal filings. Around another, a hot pink neon sign enticed, “Adults Only.”
History was interspersed with the sheer visual spectacle of the exhibit, including the story of Sane Smith, the name for the graffiti artist duo (also brothers) who tagged the Brooklyn Bridge in 1990.
Framed around photos of the notorious tag were yellowing cease and desist letter from the city and even a newspaper headline, optimistically calling for the tagger to “just turn yourself in.”The act of grafitti, it turns out, despite the permanence of what artists or “writers” leave behind, is ephemeral. Much like arson, if you didn’t see the person with the matches, it’s tough to prove who did it.
In addition to the big name artists like Shepherd Fairey and BANKSY, art from 100 street artists from around the world was featured in the exhibit, from the hyperlocal x to Japanese stencil and collage artist x. You can see a full list of artists here.
Street art would be nothing without subversion and a sense of mischievousness. I almost walked by a wall covered with what looked like standard concert billing posters, until I stopped to look at the acts. Mr. A, a french street artist, had created the posters with incredible, impossible lineups, then surreptitiously posted them in cities all around the world, no doubt creating chaos at box offices worldwide.
Another artist even lampooned the very idea of framing street art, featuring hand-drawn subjects that drill into, shoot at, and fittingly, spray paint onto the borders that contain them.
Some were political, some were playful, some were simply visually arresting. The “why” of street art is ultimately as varied as the materials and mediums the artists create on. The rise in popularity of graffiti and street art may have diminished its counter-culture cred to an extent, but many pieces, like the one done by Guerrilla Girls, who have been active since the 1980s, reminds us that some of the sentiments expressed can be just as poignant today.
The exhibit runs until July 6. You can get tickets here.
BEYOND THE STREETS – 1667 N Main St, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Want to try your hand at tagging? The Beyond the Streets website also has a few fun features like this instructional diagram, which any child of the nineties will recognize.
Can’t make it to the show in Los Angeles? Don’t worry. Many of these artists are “displaying” their work on a street near you.