Pop and Counter Culture: LA Street Art
This past fall was my first time living in a big city and it happened to be Paris, one of the world’s greatest and oldest art capitals. My visit finally pushed me to the take the leap to become an art history major in addition to journalism. Lucky for me, coming home to California, Los Angeles is also one of the burgeoning art cities of the world — not in the centuries old, refined ways of the Louvre, but with a flourishing community of living artists who take to the streets.
Paris has its own culture of street art that intrigued me; I got to hear a lecture from someone who did his thesis on Parisian street art, and even had a chance to meet one of the artists. During my walks around the city I would stop to photograph pieces whenever I spotted them. Living in Irvine, we aren’t so lucky to have colorful murals and social commentary up on our walls; in LA, however, the selection is abundant, so I went on a hunt early last Saturday morning.
At 7 a.m., the Instagrammers aren’t out yet and the traffic is as quiet as it gets in LA, and I was driving around with my pre-mapped route. I looked at a few lists of the “best” street art in LA and scheduled some spots I wanted to visit, but there was little need for any of that. There is street art on nearly every corner in certain areas of the city, and I was having trouble pulling over so I could take a picture.
My journey took me from Glendale/East LA to the Getty and Beverly Hills, and then down to Culver City and around to Downtown and the Arts District, circumambulating the city as well as I could with the time I had in one day. In some areas of the city, it’s just a free-for-all, where every wall and corner is covered with some kind of art and in all different styles. Most pieces look like actual works of art that you could see in amuseum or that someone would pay to have painted on their walls.
But instead they run in the undercurrent of street art: fairly anonymous but publicly seen by the millions of eyes that pass by. They can make a statement without worrying who disapproves. They
can practice technique or express themselves. They can say something that makes people think and consider something new.
People have loved writing their names on walls since the beginning of time and the next step in that is street art. By the 1890’s hobos were tagging and drawing on boxcars and in the 20th century, stencils were used for political propaganda, but grew exceedingly rebellious and counter-culture. The anonymity inspires trained artists and amateurs alike to furtively take up a spray can and say something, outside the walls of an institution.
Banksy is the most prominent example, now a household name known for covering the globe with his social commentary, full of pop culture references distorted into his anti-government, anti-capitalism program. Some messages appeal to everyone — like following your dreams or being happy — but some are controversial and unpleasant to look at. Street art is not always tasteful or Instagram-able, and more often, is subversive and striking. It is meant to be gripping and alarming so that the viewer responds, maybe on the individual level, or maybe by taking action and changing something.
One of the more inflammatory ones that I saw was “I got 99 problems but an O$car ain’t one!” in Hollywood, signed by Pegasus, a British artist who satirizes pop culture. Another by Mad Society Kings (a.k.a Main Street Killas), an LA-based graffiti crew has been around for about twenty years, seems to be critiquing the expanding Metro system. A wall of paste-ups (pieces that artists make at home
and then glue onto the site) in the Arts District downtown have snarky comments like “Turn signals are back in style,” or feat
ure Mickey Mouse with an Illuminati third eye, or display arrogant LA pride.
Still, other pieces are seemingly for purely aesthetic enjoyment with beautifully colorful graphic designs. Swirls and chevron patterns, an abandoned hotel and its palm trees painted completely white, a fantastical Frankenstein type with his horned girlfriend on the back of his motorcycle, tributes to David Bowie and Andy Warhol, and a primary-color Piet Mondrian recreation all adorn the same LA.
All this to say: you should check out street art in LA — maybe to Instagram it because it does deserve sharing and appreciation, or maybe to think critically about it and see things in a different light from artists not sponsored by a company and not part of mainstream media.
All photos courtesy of Nicole Block