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The Los Angeles street artist is a shadowy figure spreading art throughout the walls and alleys of LA, following the historic tradition of artists writing, drawing or painting on the surface of walls. What began as prehistoric paintings on the walls of caves, like Lascaux in France, has expanded to include a wide variety of urban art, like graffiti and stencils. The term “graffiti" is derived from the Greek word “graphein,” meaning “to scratch, draw or write.”
The invention of the aerosol spray can helped launch hip-hop graffiti, an art form based on text, in New York’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Because these artists created illegal public works as a form of social rebellion, New York police began to crack down on graffiti and its artists. New vigilance against writers (graffiti artists) resulted in a spike in racial profiling. While street art has gained greater mainstream acceptance, many still view graffiti as vandalism and associate it with lawlessness, especially in connection with communities of color.
Los Angeles street art focuses on images more than text. LA is known as a city of murals, but the beginning of the 21st century posed legal challenges for the Los Angeles street artist. The citywide mural ban of 2002 allowed for commercially-driven advertisements, but outlawed artistic works. This decadelong moratorium on street art hindered the development of public art. Nevertheless, Los Angeles emerged with a mixed canvas of illegal works and partnerships between artists and big brands like Nike and Adidas (a move that came under fire for selling out to capitalism).
The politics of urban art have long been center-stage in a city so defined by its cultural diversity, but discussing art cannot measure up to seeing it in person. Though LA brims with street art by artists from all over the world, such as Pablo Delgado, you gain a better understanding of the city from exploring local artists (including Los Angeles transplants) and their work. Outside artists bring in outside perspectives of Los Angeles, exemplified by the frequently photographed Ricardo Gonzalez “California Dreaming” mural. Head outside on a street art adventure in Los Angeles with our guide to local street artists and their work.
Colette Miller, “Angel Wings” – Various locations
Colette Miller’s 2012 Global Angel Wings Project began in the City of Angels, created as interactive street art to remind the public that we are all angels on earth. You can find these iconic angel wings scattered throughout the city, but the most photographed pair happens to rest on a roll-up door at the Regent Theater. Though originally from Richmond, Virginia, Miller works and lives in Los Angeles as a visual artist and performer.
WRDSMTH, “Aspire to Inspire” – Arts District Co-Op
You might not notice WRDSMTH’s wheatpastes and stencils until a piece of wisdom latches onto your mind, and then you’ll see the art everywhere. Words emerge from vintage typewriters, like “Never be afraid to reinvent yourself,” or “The daily grind should produce fresh brewed happiness.” WRDSMTH was born in Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in Los Angeles. He aimed to create a wheatpaste a day in 2014, according to his interview with The LA Girl blog. “I write things on walls that I wished people would have said to me when I first moved here," he said.
Tristan Eaton, “Peace by Piece” – 824 E 4th Street, Arts District
Tristan Eaton works not only as a street artist and muralist but also as an illustrator and toy designer. While many people moonlight as street artists, Eaton has a permanent art collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He is best known for his large-scale murals, which have appeared all over the world in cities like Paris and Shanghai. His “Peace by Piece” mural addresses gun violence and control in the United States.
Kim West, “Only One Way Through” – 901 E 3rd Street, Hauser Wirth
Los Angeles native Kim West creates vibrant mixed media murals depicting wildlife and nature throughout downtown LA’s Arts District. She primarily uses acrylic, spray paint and gold leaf to make her art. Her work also includes installation projects and studio painting. The New York Times lauded her five-story mural “Only One Way Through” as “dreamlike.” If you take a stroll downtown, you are sure to catch a glimpse of her fantastical art.
RETNA, Untitled – 8826 Melrose Avenue
RETNA (AKA Marquis Lewis), an LA-based artist, transforms typography and lettering to create his striking murals. He found himself fascinated by the Old English lettering he’d seen local gangs use as a child. His work elevated graffiti in the public eye. RETNA eventually developed his own alphabet based on Chicano gang writing in Los Angeles as well as Asian calligraphy, hieroglyphics and Hebrew and Arabic writing. His mural on Melrose Avenue covers a white wall with black iconography.
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