Snapshot: Los Angeles
Street Art and the Sprawling Metropolis of Los AngelesLos Angeles and street art were made for one another. The second largest city in the United States is a sprawling metropolis that is well known for its cultural diversity and ties to the film industry. From L.A.’s beaches and its Mediterranean climate to the busyness of its distinct neighborhoods and districts that come together like a city planner’s Voltron, the low-rise buildings, abundance of billboards, and generous use of concrete have created a canvas that rivals the history of white cube gallery exhibits. The refined museum curation that has kept art from living in the spaces inhabited by the general public is counterbalanced by street art that comes to meet us where we live and work each day in Los Angeles.
Street art has exploded in popularity since it made its initial debut in the 1980s as a distinct form of public art that was birthed from graffiti, yet not quite sanctioned as a form of art, unlike the murals and sculptures that dot our urban and suburban landscapes. Street art differentiated itself because it was less about words and letters, like graffiti. Instead, street art was more image-based and friendly toward the general spectator since its message and subject matter were often easily recognized. However, street artists still often used spray paint, and their work was still technically un-commissioned (read: illegal), making it live in between these two genres of art making.
The accessibility of street art is why I believe it does so well in a city like Los Angeles. The city moves quickly via rats’ nests of highways and freeways and mimics L.A. residents’ attention spans, which only get shorter year to year. Fortunately, street art does not require the viewer to go anywhere to enjoy it, and it meets us in the middle of our day, whether on the side of a traffic control switch box or adjacent to a building where we have an afternoon meeting. Street artists are careful in their placement, often complementing the landscape and thinking strategically about how and where it will be viewed. In this way, street artists borrow so many of the successful tactics of advertising, the film industry, and guerrilla warfare to ensure their art is seen by as many people as possible. It’s a strategy that rewards hustle, ingenuity, and enthusiasm.
Los Angeles hosts an ever-changing roster of street artists that range from the giants and mainstays to the newcomers who pass through like an ever-changing billboard. Shepard Fairey, the founder of OBEY, is the biggest name on the block, but there are a number of important and gifted artists who also contribute to the L.A. street art scene. Other major street artists include one of the O.G.s of the genre, Kenny Scharf, along with David Flores, Tristan Eaton, Retna, Mister Cartoon, El Mac, and Christina Angelina, to name a few. Yet, a city like L.A. also attracts street artists from around the world due to its friendly weather plus the spotlight and visibility that street art receives here. Significant contributions around the city include pieces by Banksy, Herakut, Nychos, Invader and D*Face, along with works by hundreds of other artists who have made names for themselves — or hope to someday — by making art in L.A.
Los Angeles is the ultimate concrete jungle and is the perfect foil for postmodernism in the narrative of art. Modernism being the dominant philosophy of art-making during the 20th century, graffiti and street art only begin to gain popularity as the story of modernism comes to an end in the second half of the 20th century. Enter street art, which is often considered within an art historical context as anti-modern. We can interpret street art as a reaction to the white walls, powerful institutions, and personalities that were products of the modern era, of which L.A. has plenty. Street art, in contrast, is created by a single entity, who is often powerless, and the work contrasts with the cool sleekness of the gray concrete landscape.
The ephemeral nature of street art is part of its beauty; as the city changes year to year, so does its art.