Los Angeles is a sprawling city of diverse culture and it is expressed colorfully and meaningfully on walls and other outdoor objects throughout the city. But there is a certain code that mural artists are privvy too and I wanted to find out more about how and why they make their art. That inspiried me to take the LA Art Tours: LA Arts District Graffiti and Mural Tour.
The LA Arts District is dedicated to Urban Art
I arrived on a spectacularly blue-skied day, perfect for shooting photos. Our group met in the green area of the WISDOME.LA Immersive Art Park. It’s been described as Burning Man without the sand and heat. We didn’t go inside, but that will certainly be on my list of things to see next time I go Downtown.
Our guide was Galo, a graffiti artist who lives in the area. He slid in at 11:30ish after having a couple of beers and lots of coffee. What can I say? He’s an artist but he really knows his stuff.
There’s a competing tour company working in the Arts District but, according to Galo, the guide checks his iPad to answer questions. Galo knows everyone and everything about graffiti and mural art in LA. He’s the authentic real deal.
A vocabulary lesson in Graffiti and Street Art
Aerosol spray cans are a graffiti artist’s most precious tool to express their art. Art has been produced on walls since pre-historic times, but graffiti art, as we know it today, didn’t fully emerge until the 60s and was mostly seen in New York and Philadelphia. After hip hop became popular, it spread to other urban cities and is also often seen in Europe and Japan.
It’s been associated with gangs but reputable graffiti artists don’t condone gang philosophy. However, they’ve appropriated some of the aesthetics of gang writing, fashion, and certain aspects of their lifestyle which has helped them form their unique LA style.
Galo became fascinated with letters as a small child. He told us he was introduced to graffiti art through the hip-hop scene and used to draw band logos. Fonts were his thing and he became an expert in them. There’s a documentary about the Helvetica font that he suggested we watch. It’s the most popular font on the planet
Graffiti artists and crews
A Graffiti crew is like being part of a stamp collection or chess club. Everyone in a crew has a similar style of painting and not everyone can become a member. Artists are invited by crew members to come to a meeting. If they get along with everyone they may get asked to join. Often a crew will do projects together.
Galo belongs to three crews:
- OTR – On the Run
- UTA – Undercover Artist
- LOD – Lopes on Dope
Good graffiti artists are experts at wielding a paint can. They don’t use tape, cardboard, or other agents to assist them in creating their art. It’s the equivalent of a musician mastering an instrument. The instrument is the aerosol can.
From vision to wall
There’s a process for Graffiti art. The artist has a vision and then translates it to a piece of paper, which becomes their sketch. Once the sketch is finalized, (sometimes on a computer) they take it to the wall. The artist calculates the dimensions of the wall and determines its center, then paints from the center outward.
It’s all about spray paint
Galo took us to The Montana Shop in the LA Arts District. It has walls and walls of aerosol paint cans, in every color, type, and formula imaginable. They even have cans that are safe enough for kids to use. The store is so popular it even has a coffee bar inside.
Graffiti artists vs street artists
Street art is image-driven as can be seen in the colorful murals painted on walls and buildings throughout Los Angeles. They’re very “Instagramable.”
Graffiti and street artists don’t always get along. In fact, some graffiti artists hate street artists. The problem is that many street artists come from privileged backgrounds and live in affluent communities like Calabasas. Some are trust kids so they can buy as much paint as they want.
Most graffiti artists have never had those privileges. They come from backgrounds where they had to steal their paint and battle the street. Affluent street artists have never been jumped by gangs, shot at, fallen off a bridge, been arrested, or sent to prison. There’s a huge resentment especially by graffiti artists who live in South Central LA.
It’s all about respect
If a street artist doesn’t earn the esteem of a graffiti artist their creations will probably get dissed (Dis-respected) That means the piece will get tagged or even obliterated.
Galo told the story of a woman who showed up in the Arts District driving a Red Maserati and wearing Louboutin heels. (worth about $2500) She got out of her car and walked over to a fence to repaste it. Repasting is when you stick something to a wall or fence using watered-down Elmer’s Glue or wallpaper paste. After she left, some graffiti artists destroyed her work.
The four tiers of dissing
- Tagging – adding a signature using a unique style of lettering.
- Throwup – an inflated form of tagging usually seen in large bubble letters.
- Pieces – a masterpiece
- Production – a collaboration with other graffiti artists that has a theme and is more organized. It’s not crazy organized, but there’s a main curator who may be the person behind the idea. He or she will invite others to paint on a wall and will assign elements to each artist.
Pieces and production earn respect which keeps them safe from dissing.
Here are some murals I saw on the tour.
Someone came up with the idea of using stickers as an alternative to tagging, especially on buses. Now, most graffiti and street artists have stickers and there are sticker collectors and traders.
The artist below took down a parking sign and decorated it with random stickers. Then he took it back to the street and put it on a telephone pole.
Here’s a telephone pole covered in old tires.
And . . . an embellished parking meter.
Blake Shane is a 75-year-old artist whose art is often seen on telephone poles. These pole art designs have been hand-hammered with nails.
This wood and nails piece was also tacked onto a pole.
Here’s a graffitied paint can that was stuck onto a pole.
An artist named Kook has attached his name to multiple poles.
I found this pole art about 5 miles outside of Downtown Los Angeles but thought it was cool. It’s made out of macrame.
Off the wall street installations
During the tour, we passed by an art piece called “Pinata Petting Zoo.” Pretty clever!
An example of hanging street art.
A random street sculpture. It has a sticker on it that says “Love Galo” – The artist must be a fan of our tour guide.
You never know what you’ll see if you look down.
Garage mural art
There are stunning examples of spray-painted murals on garages throughout the LA Arts District.
Female street artists
Lady muralists have been prevalent in Japan, Germany, and Spain for a long time. But, until recent years, there were very few females plying their talents on the streets of Los Angeles because of the macho attitude of their male counterparts. Women found it difficult to get recognized.
Now more female artists have started to emerge and Galo showed us the work of several of them. One is Helena. Her work is done completely with spray paint except for the blue sky.
Hueman is another female artist who was commissioned to paint the wall of this building and was given about a quarter million $ to do it. Large murals like this are an expensive undertaking because they suck up tons of aerosol paint.
Al’s Bar – Former LA punk hangout
We passed by where Al’s Bar used to be. I went there several times in the 80s and also Madame Wong’s in China Town to see Punk Rock, New Wave and Rockabilly. Al’s Bar was located at the American Hotel and was LA’s oldest Punk Club.
It was in operation from 1979 – 2001 until it was gutted. I remember it being a loud and intense venue. Celebrities who hung out there included California Governor Jerry Brown and his then-girlfriend Linda Ronstadt, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, and Pee Wee Herman. Bands that played there before they were famous were Nirvana, Los Lobos, and Wall of Voodoo.
Galo said he’s been working with some people to make the old Al’s Bar a 1980s museum.
The LA Arts District evolves
As with other artsy districts in LA, boutiques and companies have moved in to take advantage of its appeal. They’ve evicted longtime tenants to refurbish buildings and then paint over the artwork that spurred them to do business there in the first place. That’s made it near to impossible for lesser-known artists to live there because of the inflated rent.
There have been art communities in downtown LA since the 40s. Galo talked about a Japanese artist who lived there before WWII who was interned during the war on 1st St. and Alameda.
Artist residences started off as “warehouses” that were ultra-cheap to rent. Then they were turned into “Lofts.” After that, “Live-in workspaces.” With each reinvention, the rent went up. Now developers are calling these spaces “houses” to legally raise rents as high as they can.
LA Art Tours
The LA Arts District Graffiti and Mural Tour by LA Art Tours lasted 2 ½ hours. Afterward, I walked over to Zinc Café and Market where I had an amazing vegetarian mushroom Dijon burger. LOL, I didn’t know the restaurant was all vegetarian when I went in but I absolutely LOVED the burger and would eat there anytime.
The entire district is wonderful to walk around in with nice places to eat. Plus, Little Tokyo is nearby.
There are several other guided and private tours available on their website that I plan to check out. The tours are vastly underpriced considering the value. I made sure to leave a nice tip.
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