On Wednesday, Jan. 22, artist and curator Galo "Make" Canote stood outside Muzeo, downtown Anaheim's art museum. Inside sat pieces of bold graphic art, waiting to be hung. Also waiting inside were the museum's executive director and a detective from the Anaheim Police Department's gang division.
Canote took a deep breath. A successful, street-savvy artist and muralist who worked with at-risk groups and taught the art of lettering and graffiti in Los Angeles' public schools, he had been approached by museum officials in October 2013 about a show on graffiti.
The Koreatown-raised Canote, who now lives in East Hollywood, had suggested a fresher idea — an in-depth look at cholo lettering that also would celebrate the evolving history of Chicano culture in Southern California. The week before Thanksgiving, Muzeo's board agreed to a show that would run for six weeks, beginning Jan. 31. Muzeo's then–executive director John Scola explains, "Galo's very well-connected, so we didn't put any guidelines at all."
With this show, Muzeo would join SoCal's recent movement to mainstream street art and graffiti. MOCA's 2011 "Art in the Streets" was the first major museum retrospective on the topic. The 2012 Kustom Kulture II show at the Huntington Beach Arts Center featured graffiti art as well as art influenced by hot rod and surf cultures. The 2014 L.A. Art Show, at the end of January, highlighted the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles and the city's mural artists. A new, less restrictive Los Angeles City Mural Ordinance, passed in August 2013, gives artists legal walls to paint. And street art is making gains among collectors.
But Canote didn't anticipate the last-minute obstacles that would be created by Muzeo's board of directors, who wanted to monitor the art, for fear that the images were associated with gangs. The controversy eventually would lead to a Muzeo board member resigning in disgust, and the exhibit's cancelation, all demonstrating that graffiti art still struggles for wider acceptance.
Canote pulled the show together quickly, between Thanksgiving and mid-January. He named the exhibition "Con Safos (With Respect): The Art and Culture of Urban Chirography."
"I wasn't going to curate questionable material, but wanted to humanize the subject and remove stereotypes," he says.
"Con safos" means "with respect" in Caló, a language that developed in Mexico from medieval Spanish, Andalusian Gypsy vernacular and native Nahuatl. Brought to the United States by immigrants in the late 1930s, Caló evolved into cholo street slang. Artists add "con safos" — often abbreviated "C/S" — to murals to show, according to historian Frank Sifuentes, that the work is to be "highly regarded and respected. ... It can't be disrespected" by defacement. Both the phrase and "C/S" are tattooed on shoulders and arms throughout Southern California.
For the Muzeo show, Canote curated art based in graffiti culture, car clubs, Chicano history and daily life. Among the 25 artists involved were several with large, international followings. Chaz Bojórquez's lettering and images are shaped by his growing up in East L.A. and furthered by his worldwide travels. His paintings and prints, combining traditional Chicano elements with Asian-influenced calligraphy, often give the impression of three-dimensionality. His work has been shown at LACMA and in MOCA's "Art in the Streets," and is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bojórquez's "Señor Suerte," a fedora-wearing skull smoking a cigarette, which he created as his personal logo, has become popular tattoo flash.
Boyle Heights–born Alex "Defer" Kizu layers blocky, street-influenced lettering to create his paintings. Kizu was featured in "Will Los Angeles Reclaim Its Title of Mural Capital of the World" at the 2014 L.A. Art Show, and has shown at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Big Sleeps, another L.A. native, travels around the world creating murals, skate decks and tattoos in flowing, cholo freehand cursive. Also on the roster: L.A.-based Siner and artists from Portugal, Mexico, Japan and the Netherlands. The exhibit's focal points were site-specific murals on Muzeo's walls by Kizu, Big Sleeps and artist Sergio Robleto.
Canote's plans included site-specific installations, lowrider cars and historic photographs and displays. He scheduled lectures, workshops and a car show, plus a 35th-anniversary screening of Boulevard Nights, the 1979 L.A. lowrider melodrama. He also organized a sponsored launch party with swag bags, food and drinks.
He kept in mind Muzeo's mission statement, which says it strives "to engage the community by exploring and celebrating our diverse heritage, culture and arts through creative programming ... [and] to expand our reach to new audiences and break down barriers to access of culture and the arts."
For artist Danny "Big Pranks" Morales, who traces his roots to Anaheim, the show had special meaning. "For me, the show would've brought my career as an artist full circle," he says. "I'd told Galo that I took my wife and kids to El Muzeo years ago to see Cheech Marin's private art collection. My kids asked why my art wasn't there on the walls, too. I told them that Cheech and Muzeo just didn't know about me yet and one day I'd have my work in there on the walls, too, with all of those badass artists."