USA Travel

From grey to glorious: Downtown Los Angeles’ street art symphony

Joel Bloom Square in Downtown Los Angeles

Joel Bloom Square in Downtown Los Angeles  

There’s a distinct dichotomy to Los Angeles: one part a dazzling entertainment epicentre, the other a booming street art community thriving on walls, streets and doors

In the middle of Downtown Los Angeles’ (DTLA) Arts District, the dizzying array of colour and character hasn’t just become a pretty sight prompting Instagram posts. It’s now a travel destination in itself, luring millions from around the world to peruse this Mecca of murals and to, well, ‘stay woke’.

This street art infuses a breath of life into gritty and disused buildings. “The revitalisation of DTLA’s historic core and some of the older warehouse areas in Chinatown, Little Tokyo and the Arts District is remarkable,” comments Cindy Schwarzstein of Cartwheel Art, a company offering public and private tours of the DTLA Arts District. “It’s exciting to see a Downtown that had become sleepy and forgotten having quite the renaissance. I see how far the area has come and that boost of life through street art is truly significant.”

A cornucopia of street art on an old building

A cornucopia of street art on an old building  

Whether it’s the iconic works of prolific David Choe who’s known for his ‘dirty style’ exploring the excesses of life, or vigilante-esque Joe Connolly, aka Graffiti Guerilla, this mural movement thrives through different mediums too, such as photography, film, music videos, and more recently, social media.

“The street art popularisation has been accepted in a way it had not been before, making art more accessible to everybody,” says Cindy commending Steve Grody, a graffiti photographer and historian.

Thanks to deep DTLA roots, Steve ensures visitors actually understand aspects such as technique with lettering and style — something universal around the world. “The BBQ aspect of our Graffiti & BBQ tour invites some great food by a local establishment,” comments Cindy, “It’s here where we connect with artists for a workshop for them to try out their own styles, inspired from our experience together in the streets and alleys of the Arts District. Offering an opportunity for locals and visitors to feel connected is important so they have a true understanding of the artistic community.”

‘Wonder Woman is a state of mind’

‘Wonder Woman is a state of mind’  

But street artist and guide at LA Art Tours, Galo ‘Make’ Canote, sees it differently. “I notice artists aren’t so abrasive and in-your-face, however, with the street art market being saturated with commercial works which are more brand-focussed, I honestly see a depreciation in quality — there’s a distinct lessening in rawness in the works, which makes them all a little less honest.”

These lively neighbourhoods teem with narratively-rich street art, belying the tumultuous story of the City of Dreams. The first strokes appearing on expansively empty walls in the 80s were first seen as vandalism. However, the tempestuous socio-political climate had people making a case for these perceptive pieces. The average LA dweller frequents these districts as if to reflect upon the socio-political statements in these artworks.

Now, who better than creators such as Hector ‘ShanduOne’ Calderon — the first artist to paint the infamous Belmont Tunnel, channelling art as an alternative to gangs and drugs — and Angeleno Galo ‘Make’ Canote to guide you? “The international travellers’ ratio is incredibly high,” describes Galo, “and through these experiences, we want to educate them about, for example, the illegal versus the legal ramifications of the early stages of this movement. We also discuss the various types of artists: the purists, the artists from privileged backgrounds, those above the wage line and so on, because those circumstances really underpin their approach. It’s a very interesting narrative to observe.”

A cornucopia of street art on an old building

A cornucopia of street art on an old building  

Galo adds that demos are ideal for travellers to truly understand that these behemoth works of art are made without grids, the only guidance being eye-coordination.

Street art as a compass

West Hollywood too has stunning street art, but they exude ‘money money money’, as they’re openly commissioned by businesses. However, the ethos of DTLA is about the artists’ expressions and witticism. These works have become such a point of interest, travellers and Angelenos alike use them as landmarks to navigate through the bustle of an ever-evolving area.

Wander past a set of Bernie Sanders’ painted eyes on a wall on your right, and it’s a given you can head straight to The Last Bookstore, the state’s largest new-and-used book and record store.

Spot a forearm and hand stretched up the side of a tall apartment complex — aptly titled ‘Reach for the sky’ by Case Maclaim — and you know you’re around the corner from The Grammy Museum and the Staples Centre. And if you’re hanging out by a huge upside-down reclining figure on a wall tucked away in a parking lot in Little Tokyo, that’s most likely ‘Dreamer’ which is just paces away from The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art).

Known for high-impact and iconic imagery, art collective Free Humanity has taken to using Audrey Hepburn’s photograph, sprucing it up with colour.

According to their website, the organisation’s aim is to “take back humanity stolen from our minds by social manipulation and plant seeds of positivity through art and consciousness” to embody “the perfect marriage of timeless grace and progressive street style”. The project sprouted all over the area last November, but eye-catching work is still the thing to look out for; one such is on a utility box on Main Street just steps away from the Japanese American National Museum.

Colour for cash

While street art tours rake in some revenue showing the world these bright walls of DTLA, the actual artists doesn’t make a lot of money. Galo is frank about this, which is partly why he’s joined the tour world. “From subculture to big money,” he says, “and honestly, given I’m a creator, I have that right.” Some urban renewal projects funded by corporate entities, though, do pay big money to artists — at times upwards of US$50,000.

Sometimes, the effect of street art ripples as far as increasing property values of the surrounding urban neighbourhoods, because the art is seen as a picturesque landmark and cultural entity.

In fact, street art in London by Banksy has often led to the trebling of certain properties, as shown in a study conducted by University of Warwick. So who knows, if you’re house-hunting in DTLA, there may be a similar correlation.

So if you’ve kicked it in London’s Leake Street or Prague’s Florenc Station, thinking you’ve seen it all — you’re wrong. There are worlds of street art which you still have to witness.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 10:38:19 AM |

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