A new wave of visual vigilantes is taking the city street by street
Photographs by Fred Jacobs
Being a street artist used to be a dangerous and dirty pastime involving cat-and-mouse games with the cops, tubs of wheat paste, and minimal compensation — but working conditions have decidedly improved. For some top-tier street artists in Los Angeles, the most vexing problem these days is choosing between signing with CAA, WME and UTA. Galleries now fiercely compete for some of the best-known artists, and brands like Hermès and Mercedes have incorporated street art into their fashion shows and advertising. These days, it’s not unusual for a doodle first drawn with a marker on a bus window to be quickly licensed by a T-shirt or sneaker company.
L.A.’s current vogue for street art got a big boost in 2013, when the city finally abandoned an 11-year-long ban on murals. The simultaneous revitalization of downtown also provided aspiring artists with lots of new opportunities. It wasn’t long before multi-story, photo-realistic mural featuring red roses and mopey emo girls began rising all over town — karmic payback for the city’s longtime hard line against the genre.
Street art’s infiltration of the art establishment began in 1979, when dealer Claudio Bruni invited Fab 5 Freddy and Lee Quiñones to paint inside his gallery in Rome. In New York, the influential art dealer Jeffrey Deitch had long shown street artists such as Osemeos, Margaret Kilgallen and Steve Powers at his influential SoHo gallery. When he took over as director of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2010, his first splashy show was called “Art in the Streets.” The exhibit, L.A.’s first-ever major museum retrospective of street art, attracted rapturous media attention and record-breaking crowds. Not surprisingly, it also inspired several major L.A. galleries to bring spray-can-wielding wretches in from the cold. Pretty soon, serious money was changing hands.
One group that has managed to masterfully straddle the boundaries of corporate and credible is the Seventh Letter Crew, founded by legendary artist Eklips in 1999 when he merged two groups — Art Work Rebels and Mad Society Kings. It was Eklips’s vision to pursue merchandising and corporate commissions, and he managed to successfully market some of the best-known street artists in L.A., including Retna, whose rune-like murals have been commissioned by Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Jimmy Choo. Dabs Myla, who hit the streets as a couple, were soon slapping their playful cartoon imagery on Viacom office lobbies and Modernica’s furniture showrooms.
For street artists, selling out is not a thing. “Every underground culture gets swallowed and regurgitated by capitalism — skating, punk or graffiti,” says Parisian-born tagger Sebastian Walker. “But ‘selling out’ is a term invented by bitterness and envy. There is a French saying that says, “The critique is easy, the art is difficult.”
Today, as graffiti artists have gone from criminals to cognoscenti, there seem to be as many young people in the spray-paint aisles at Blick than there are auditioning to be sitcom extras. Here are a few favorites who are leading the pack with inventive skills and impressive commissions.
JULES MUCK “Painting in public is a rebellious act in itself,” says British-born, New-York raised Jules Muck, “whether you paint political images or flowers. It’s the visual manifestation of equality.” A few miles from her home in Venice Beach, Muck has created a rock ’n’ roll version of the urban memorial wall: 12-foot-tall portraits of Motorhead’s Lemmy, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, each put up within days of the musicians’ deaths. As an act of rebellion against the growing gentrification iof her once gritty neighborhood, she’s taken to “garbagebombing”—painting random objects she finds on the curb. She recently painted a giant loaf of Wonder Bread on a discarded refrigerator, and an oozing slice of pizza on a urine-stained La-Z-Boy. Muck’s paintings have gotten her into trouble (“I’m jumping bond on a felony vandalism charge out of state right now,” she says) and out of it (“Thank God I can afford lawyers and fines these days”). They’ve also taken her as far away as Greece, where she painted a mural for a Syrian refugee camp on Lesbos.
JIMMY WARHOL As an athlete before he became a self-taught artist, this L.A. native had his eye on the NFL., but injuries and subsequent depression derailed him. Instead, he became a painter who approaches is art like athletics, using the same visualization, meditation techniques, and intense drive to keep his work steadily moving. His street art has created opportunities for him to work for increasingly bigger corporate clients, including Black & Decker and Mountain Dew, as well as for charitable causes (such as AIDS Project LA, in conjunction with FourTwoNine). “L.A. is the land of opportunity,” he says. “But thbis town is also a shark tank. When you’re hungry, you have to go get your food. If you can be comfortable, you’ll have the energy you need to propel you’re artistic career
SEBASTIAN WALKER One of Walker’s earliest memories is flying in an airplane next to a stranger reading a dirty comic book. A few decades later the painter’s cartoonish smoking fish are swimming on walls all around town. Hailed as one of the most daring of the new wave of graffiti artists. Walker finally achieved his dream of having a solo show at Seventh Letters’ Fairfax gallery last spring. His animals—gleefully vomiting, disemboweling themselves, smoking crack, and shooting lasers out of their eyes—are his trademark, but the dense geometric compositions he stuffs them into (and the Hieronymous Bosch-like phantasmagoria they all add up to) are what really distinguishes his work. Walker has recently painted murals for Bo Vaping U.S. and a City of Los Angeles safe driving campaign, but the piece he’s proudest of are the mural he just did for a foster care center in Bellflower
MIDAS LIVES Midas Lives wears a mask that looks like something out of a 1920’s German horror movie, a getup that started as a way to hide his face when he was doing art that wasn’t quite legal. Soon, though, Lives’s mask, with its gold blobs, became a piece of art itself. He first learned his way around a spray can as a teen with L.A.’s Can’t Hold Back Crew in the ’90s. At 19 he gave up graffiti to attend school for fashion marketing, but the streets soon called him back, and now he’s putting up his splintered-glass mosaics all over the world. “I love Expressionism,” he says of the influence most apparent in his work. “I’m all about Van Gogh. The mad lover had crazy styles.”
WRDSMTH Graffiti artists often refer to themselves as writers—in the mid-’60s, the guy credited with launching the golden age of graffiti got his start by simply writing his tag, “Cornbread,” all over Philadelphia. But Wrdsmth is one writer who actually studied creative writing at college, and subsequently wrote for advertising and Hollywood. His trademark is a stenciled typewriter holding a sheet of paper with various upbeat messages printed in a smudged, Courier-like font. “Aspire to inspire others and the universe will take note” is one of Wrdsmth’s typical aphorisms. The typewriter and its messages work particularly well on tall, metal traffic-signal boxes on street corners around L.A., because motorists crawling bumper-to-bumper can see them. Is that legal? “I’ve had officers roll up on me and while they ran my name to see if I had any warrants (I do not), they said, ‘We like what you’re doing!’” Legit, well-paid work has begun to find its way to Wrdsmth, but he’s strict about what he’ll do. “I say no as much as I say yes, because a lot of corporations don’t get it; they want to alter what I do—not an option for me.” In a town where people babble about gratitude and being blessed all day long, there’s probably not much a brand would have to worry about from Wrdsmth. Indeed, he’s a happy guy. “I’m getting read on a daily basis all over the world,” he says. “And for any writer, that’s living the dream.
SPACE GOTH A true refugee from the art world, Space Goth decided to put all her efforts into her own art after being fired from a Los Angeles art gallery. She is known for her “reaper” characters—skeletons in white shrouds who are obsessed with social media, selfies, and dumpsters. They don’t want to get out of bed, they tend toward self-deprecating humor, and, despite being bloodthirsty, they’re capable of comforting fellow reapers with surprising empathy. “I personally suffer from severe anxiety,” says Space Goth. “And a top reason I enjoy what I do is being able to connect to people in similar situations.” Her dark humor was born of trying to cope with the deaths of friends in the skateboarding scene. “I’ve found inspiration for some of my works from the loss of some very dear friends to drugs, suicide, or skate accidents,” she says. She shows at the Gabba Gallery.